I’m wrestling with how to express myself in the midst of the socio-political climate in my country. I can’t say that I’ve ever been completely comfortable as a U.S. citizen. I’ve read too much history and lived through too many ugly times to just tune out the big picture and focus on me and my little world. I grew up in a household in which news and current events were always front and center, no matter what the personal issues may have been. I am a political creature as was my husband, so it’s no surprise that my children are always engaged as well. Even as Michael’s life was ebbing away, my kids and I were still anxiously watching our Orwellian government take shape before our eyes. That November, 2016 election and the subsequent government unraveling lay over our intimate family pain like an unavoidable dark cloud.
As Michael’s cancer invaded his brain I struggled to help him make sense of the Muslim ban. What is a Muslim ban he would ask? I had a tough time explaining what was happening. As the months went by, the dysfunction and gamesmanship of this president escalated and along with his dangerous antics came the knowledge that the thin veneer of civilized behavior in our society was being pulled back to reveal the fact that a large swath of our population was eager to climb aboard this ugly runaway train of prejudice and hatred. I can’t say I was surprised by that, either.
I know that my views are wholly disparate from many of my neighbors. I’m a radical, at least relative to what I know are mainstream viewpoints. But the stakes are getting higher every day. I can’t conceive of what the future holds for my children and grandchildren. Efforts to cope with climate change are being systematically undone by this government. Science is ignored. The courts are packed with judges who will strike down many laws that affect critical components of individual freedoms. Bakers don’t have to accept cake orders from people whose lifestyles don’t fit with theirs. Women’s choices are being carved up by white-haired old men. How can I, who have never served as a soldier in any war, feel what seems to fit the definitions I’ve read of “battle fatigue?” PTSD?
I know I’m not alone in these feelings. After the gun violence of this last weekend, I believe there are millions who can’t bear one more event like these, people for whom the simple logic of getting rid of these war weapons would stem the tide of violence in this culture. It happened in New Zealand in the blink of an eye. But here, the bodies continue to pile up, indiscriminately. Little children, teenagers, young people and everyone else. Equal opportunity death. So yes, writing about anything personal is a conundrum for me right now because I’m exhausted from this world and I don’t want to trivialize the horror that occupies my mind. But there are thoughts sifting around each other in my head and I think that I’ll try to pull them together in a way that is somehow relevant, albeit topically different from this current nightmare.
For the past several years as I coped with illness, deaths, loneliness and feelings of abandonment, I’ve fled to this country’s national parks. While Michael was still alive and in decent shape after one of his toxic treatments, he went with me. Since his death, I’ve gone alone, aside from one trip with my son. These natural miracles help calm and normalize me. They help me ratchet down from the sometimes giant-sized feelings that can blow up in me when I spend too much time on my own, thinking.
The parks with their vast spaces, soaring heights and dazzling beauty stimulate different avenues of thought. Perspective changes as you ponder your tiny space in the great big world where the silent hoodoos, thousand year old trees and rushing waters stand their vigils as uncountable people like me pass through to ogle their majesty. So many who’ve viewed them are long gone and dust. One day, I’ll join that group of people who were compelled to take these journeys and then passed into anonymity. But there’s the question. I’ve thought about two things you learn when you travel to these breathtaking places.
One is “leave no trace.” This is a seven point manifesto which a serious parkgoer learns to ensure that the paths taken through the beauty remain unmarred by our presence. Our journeys should leave nothing of us behind except the spirit that drove us to travel there in the first place. Leave nothing, take nothing.
And then there is our very specific footprint to consider. For those of us who care about the safety and integrity of our planet, we are reminded to be aware of our carbon footprint. We strive to be mindful of how to cut back on our own carbon emissions to try to diminish the destruction of earth’s atmosphere already so damaged by the use of fossil fuels, the endless belching of toxins into the atmosphere. I do think about these issues and try to measure what I do, to be a responsible citizen of the planet. But leaving no trace and footprints means more than the obvious to me.
As you roam the parks, you see the attempts of people who came thousands of years before us, to leave a record of how they lived, how they walked through these spaces we now observe. I’ve photographed the petroglyphs in Utah and Colorado. I know that they are strewn over the globe in other countries and that people try to preserve them for the future. Is it not, then, a common instinct to leave a trace, to leave a different kind of footprint, unlike the dinosaur fossils we see in the west, but a footprint nonetheless? A way of telling future generations that once we were here, that once this was how we lived? I am pondering those ideas in a personal way for me and also pondering the traces and footprints left by those who’ve written themselves into recorded history by their acts of violence. All of us are tiny specks in this world, and many of us will go unremembered for anything we’ve done. In my case, I haven’t contributed a significant accomplishment or discovery that makes my life memorable to the world at large.
That’s ok with me. My family will remember me and pass my stories, those which entertain, those which in their small ways were heroic, until our line either disappears or is blended with others until there is no recognition. My physical footprint will be small, my emotional footprint a bit larger. When I’m remembered, I’m hopeful it will be for trying to make a positive contribution to the lives of people I was able to reach as I passed through this life on my journey to its end. I’d like my legacy to be one of caring and being a voice for those who didn’t find theirs. I’d like to remembered for having a moral compass, for trying to help even out the many injustices I see around me every day. I’ve leant a helping hand to people who needed one. I’ve created safe spaces for kids who were without those.
I’ve marched against wrong wars and abrogated rights. I’ve been to jail, albeit briefly, to stand for my principles. Those things will have to do. But I ask myself in these troubled times, what impelled the shooters who aimed military grade weapons at total strangers to do what they did? Is their way of leaving a trace? Is this their idea of a footprint, one that will stand alongside those images carved into the rock faces alongside rivers and up mountains? I can’t know the answers to those questions. These young destroyers have an internal fabric so very different than my own. I don’t know if they sought to become part of the violent history that marks this country. I don’t know if they ever gave a thought to what I, nearing the end of my seventh decade, think about as I look back over my life and ponder what for me are the big questions. I just know that I can’t merely think about this stuff, when outside me there are more and more incidents and bodies piling up. I can’t see into these peoples’ heads. I only know that for those of us evaluating our own impacts on the world, we have to make room for the struggle to quash this violence. For me that means, working for and contributing to those who would be elected and remove these weapons from access to anyone.
It means trying to thwart the NRA which has corrupted the intent of the 2nd amendment and confused those not smart enough to understand its real meaning. It means trying to maintain and build more cross cultural bridges with people so our combined strength can undo the damage that’s already been done and to build coalitions that will last. I want to leave a trace and a footprint that is tolerant and humane. I don’t want to be swept aside by those who are the destroyers. So it is personal and much bigger than me all at the same time. I still want to rise up and beat back the dark cloud of what’s pushing us into these stressed-out dark places. I’m going for the light, the beauty and bright skies. I guess that’s what I can do.