When you tear the meniscus on your right knee and can’t run or exercise for almost a year, and you sink into a deep pit of despair that, a year later, you begin to think sprung at least in part from the lack of physical stimulation and activity, but you also notice another by-product of the reduced activity: you’ve gained at least 20 pounds. And you begin to regret all those times you made conscious or subconscious fun of people who talked about counting calories and pinching an inch (you can now pinch 2.5 inches) and their bodies changing as they grow old, as you now feel, running again, like you’re running with an entirely different and deficient body. You no longer think about pushing the pace for ten miles, but merely of getting through three without too much pain in your knee. And then when you are running across 21st Avenue in Queens in the rain, and you slip and fall on your right arm, tearing the muscles in your rotator cuff so that you can’t lift your arm above your head without pain, and you begin rationalizing and compartmentalizing, telling yourself that it’s only the right side of your body that’s grown old and unusable, that you are left-handed and perhaps you can simply live on that side—you always loved your left hand more, with the little mole on the innermost knuckle that was always your way of discerning it from your right hand, only now the mole is gone, but at least your left hand is free of the liver spots that have gathered on the backside of your right hand. You will be 44 years old next month, and your life is most likely more than half-lived. Start living through your children as they run through sprinklers and go to swim camp and dart through the waves on the beach like the little crabs and sand fleas they chase. Stop running. Rest, recover, and then run again, in fits and starts toward the finish that awaits us all.
8YO: This movie was made by Duncan Studios. Do you think that’s the same place they make Dunkin Donuts?
ME: Because donuts are usually made in movie studios?
8YO: Well, there were some police in this movie.
In thinking on how to curate my workshop at Rikers, I've been spending some time with Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. On my way there on the Q100 last week, though, a passage from the last chapter gave me some context for our current regime. Here's some of it.
...[T]he dominators try to present themselves as saviors of the women and men they dehumanize and divide. This messianism, however, cannot conceal their true intention: to save themselves. They want to save their riches, their power, their way of life: the things that allow them to subjugate others.
"A psychoanalysis of oppressive action might reveal the 'false generosity' of the oppressor...as a dimension of the latter's sense of guilt. With this false generosity, he attempts not only to preserve an unjust and necrophilic order, but the 'buy' peace for himself. It happens that peace cannot be bought; peace is experienced in solidarity and loving acts, which cannot be incarnated in oppression.
"Since it is necessary to divide the people in order to preserve the status quo and (thereby) the power of the dominators, it is essential for the oppressors to keep the oppressed from perceiving their strategy. So the former must convince the latter that they are being 'defended' against the demonic action of 'marginals, rowdies, and enemies of God' (for these are the epithets directed at men who lived and are living the brave pursuit of mans humanization). In order to divide and confuse the people, the destroyers call themselves builders, and accuse the true builders of being destructive. History, however, always takes it upon itself to modify these designations."
History will not be kind to Donald Trump, or to us as Americans for electing him. We have a lot of work to do, and a major reckoning with ourselves. But Freire also has some cautionary words for Democrats dreaming of quick fixes at the midterms:
"In a situation of manipulation, the Left is almost always tempted by a 'quick return to power,' forgets the necessity of joining with the oppressed to forge an organization, and strays into an impossible 'dialogue' with the dominant elites. It ends by being manipulated by these elites, and not infrequently itself falls into an elitist game, which it calls 'realism.'"
EVERY ONE OF YOU, TO A MAN*, IS EXPENDING ENERGY TODAY IN CALLING THE DISTURBED GUY WHO SHOT UP A CONGRESSIONAL BASEBALL GAME A BERNIE SUPPORTER AND A TYPICAL ANGRY LIBERAL, AND ARMCHAIR-RESEARCHING ALL OF HIS POSSIBLE CONNECTIONS TO THE NEFARIOUS LIBERAL UNDERGROUND. SPEAKING AS AN ANGRY LIBERAL, LET ME BE (PROBABLY NOT) THE FIRST TO POINT OUT THAT NOT ONE OF YOU BOTHERED COMMENTING ON THE STORY TWO WEEKS AGO OF A DISTURBED MAN WHO STABBED THREE PEOPLE ON A PORTLAND TRAIN, KILLING TWO, BECAUSE THEY WOULDN'T LET HIM SHOUT RACIAL SLURS AT TWO TEENAGE GIRLS ON THE TRAIN (AND WHO AT HIS RECENT ARRAIGNMENT SHOUTED "YOU CALL IT TERRORISM, I CALL IT PATRIOTISM!").
I'M NOT ASHAMED TO ADMIT THAT I EMPATHIZE WITH A PERSON WHO, SEEING A CONGRESS CYNICALLY COLLUDING WITH A LEGITIMATELY INSANE PRESIDENT WHO OPENLY INCITES VIOLENCE AMONG HIS FOLLOWERS ON PEOPLE WHO RESIST HIS REGIME, SEES THE VIOLENT LOGIC IN ELIMINATING A FEW FROM THEIR RANKS - SURELY MORE THAN I EMPATHIZE WITH A XENOPHOBE WHO TAKES THE PRESIDENT'S LOGIC AS PERMISSION TO STALK PEOPLE ON THE TRAIN AND STAB TO DEATH ANYONE WHO DENIES THIS "FREE SPEECH." THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ME AND EITHER OF THESE MEN, BETWEEN ME AND ISIS OR THE POSSE COMITATUS, IS THAT I DON'T ACT ON THOSE IMPULSES. I UNDERSTAND THAT THE MOST BASIC CONTRACT WE HAVE WITH EACH OTHER IS NOT TO OPPRESS EACH OTHER'S PERSONHOOD. KILLING SOMEONE IS OBVIOUSLY THAT, BUT SO IS SHOUTING RACIAL SLURS AT THEM IN A PUBLIC PLACE. SO IS MAKING HEALTHCARE LESS VIABLE FOR THEM BECAUSE THEY HAVE LESS MONEY. SO IS IGNORING THEM IN ELECTED OFFICE BECAUSE THEY DON'T FIT INTO THE HALF OF THE POPULATION YOU'VE DECIDED YOU REPRESENT. SO IS SYSTEMATICALLY INCARCERATING THEM. SO IS TAKING AWAY THEIR LAND AND GIVING IT TO THE CORPORATE INTERESTS THAT FUND YOU IN THE NAME OF "DEVELOPMENT."
SO YES, I DO EMPATHIZE WITH THE MOTIVES OF ONE KILLER OVER THE OTHER. I OWN THAT. BUT CALLING ONE A HATE CRIME OR AN ACT OF TERROR AND THE OTHER ANYTHING ELSE - OR IGNORING IT BECAUSE IT DOESN'T FIT YOUR IDEOLOGY - IS JUST AN ASSHOLE THING TO DO. AND YOU'RE AN ASSHOLE IF YOU DO IT.
* THE PRONOUN USE IS NOT ACCIDENTAL. YOU ARE ALL MEN.
When your best friend texts to tell you that Emma Morano, at 117 years old the eldest person in the world, has died and all you can think is Beverly Cleary, the 102-year-old author of all those Beezus and Ramona and Henry and Ribsy books you read as a child and now read to your children—how they were written in the span of 50 years from 1950-1999, long enough to see perhaps the period of greatest cultural tectonic shift in human history, only the world of Klickitat Street never changes, or only slightly, enough to see two girls age five years over the fifty between Henry Huggins’s publication in 1950 and Ramona’s World in 1999; how you can feel the nostalgic pull toward an imaginary 1950’s that led 26% of voting-age Americans to vote for Donald Trump last year in the hopes of bringing back salt-of-the-earth jobs that no longer exist and probably shouldn’t; how Henry’s industrious schemes to save $59.95 for a bike by selling boxes of bubblegum and preying on traditional female gender roles to resell a coupon for beauty treatment to Beezus speak to the “innocent Fifties” mentality Joan Didion documented while observing a Jaycees convention in 1970: “There was the belief in business success as a transcendent ideal. There was the faith that if one transforms oneself from an ‘introvert’ to an ‘extrovert,’ if one learns to ‘speak effectively’ and ‘do a job,’ success and its concomitant, spiritual grace, follow naturally." But: “There was…a kind of poignant attempt to circumnavigate social conventions that had in fact broken down in the Twenties…the voice of all those who have felt themselves not merely shocked but personally betrayed by recent history. It was supposed to be their time. It was not.” Only the spirit-ghost of that mythological time seems to keep returning every thirty years—the pre-crash Twenties, the pre-upheaval Fifties, the pre-internet Eighties, now the Teens which, according to self-perpetuating American mythology, promise to be remembered as another golden age of adolescent self-delusion, one that, like the corporations that create and promulgate this cycle, will far outlive Emma Morano, or Beverly Cleary, or you.
When you hear a child scream on the other end of the train, once, then again, the second scream stifled by a hand over the child’s mouth, and you think about your four-year-old daughter and how she screams at pretty much any impulse—running around the circuit of your small apartment, being told not to do something, arguing with her sister—and you think how you, a young boy, would run home to your room so you could be alone in the house and imitate the shrieks your mother would hurl like fists at the man who had entered your house and demanded you call him Dad, would mortify your young friends’ masculine sensibilities by screaming like a girl when they least expected it, would stop in the tunnel under the railway bridge and wait for the train to pass over you and battle the locomotive’s roar for the loudest octave. You know now that you should empathize with the parent and your fellow passengers on this train, but you want instead to go to the other end of the train and tell this child something like Enjoy this, or You have a beautiful voice. Then the child begins again with a low-pitched, hurtful sustained wail, and people begin to shift in their seats and murmur at each other until you put on your headphones, unsure whether you’re blocking out the whispers or screams.
When you sat on the edge of Kentucky Lake with your girlfriend and your best friend, and you knew this was ending—maybe it had already ended, the details are fuzzy, but the only thing that remains is you and this woman and this man and you, and this woman is getting into the water, her body is submerged and she’s removing her swimsuit, and your best friend is on the shore with you rubbing your thigh, and she emerges wet and glistening in that evening sun and sits next to you, leans her head on your shoulder, and sighs, and you feel perhaps more desired, more interesting than you will ever again feel with these two people surrounding you, and the three of you go back to the car in the woods by the lake and get in the backseat together and remove all of your clothes, and you know they both desire you, they both move upon you, devouring you with gulps and slurps, and you cower. You fear both of them, the two people closer to you than anyone has ever been and perhaps ever will be, who want only to ingest you from the cock upward, and this makes you tremble from the center of your thorax, makes your member flaccid, and your two lovers look at each other in confusion until you invite them to devour each other while you curl up into the floorboards.
When your kids are playing with their stuffed animals at the couch and one falls off, and your seven-year-old daughter laughs, “He jumped off the cliff and killed himself,” and then she and your four-year-old tell your Echo speaker to make a song out of the phrase so that “He jumped off the cliff and killed himself” plays in an endless loop to the tune of the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah. You think about your friend who jumped off a cliff and killed himself last year and want to tell them to stop it, just stop it as they send one particular stuffed animal on a series of headers from the couch to the floor, then smile at the deathlessness of this sequence—the fall and rise, fall and rise of Waddle-Waddle the Penguin as a synthetic voice approximates a chorus—and you marvel at the innocence and ignorance with which they have, for these moments, achieved the artist’s greatest aspiration: to stop time, to stand at the edge of the precipice and laugh.
When you’re preparing the reading for the class you’ve started teaching at Rikers, and the theme is ostensibly persona but you want to choose everything so perfectly that each of your five inmates—you mean, students—feels the force of the words so primally, so internally, that he wants to use those words to shape his own world in the image he projects, rather than the one he now lives within. Throw in some of your favorite Langston Hughes poems and Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son,” as long as you remain aware of the dynamic this creates of a white man “teaching” these pieces to incarcerated black men but also acknowledge the thirst to contextualize their experiences that they’ve let you in on. (And yes, allow yourself a moment to secretly glow that, even in your first conversations with them, they call you brother.) Go ahead and throw in Dave Eggers’ “After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned” because you reread it last week and want to give these brothers a taste of the unadulterated joy a dog takes in the simple act of running and leaping, from the dog’s perspective—even if the dog has been trained to fight and thrown in a river, even though the squirrels continue to chatter at the inanity of running and jumping just for the joy of it all, even in the knowledge that it all ends in death. Yes, even if it begins in bondage, even through the chatter of know-nothings and random, impulsive acts of violence, even in the knowledge that it all ends in non-existence, there is still joy, joy joy in the wind in your face and the air beneath you, even if we sometimes only feel it through words.
When you’re having this crazy dream that you and your wife continually break into the same apartment, not to steal anything but just to live in it for a few hours—the apartment belongs to another couple, who have a cat and a Vitamix and a balcony, and you sometimes grill out on the balcony and always feed the cat, and sometime in the course of the dream you think, This would be a great feature piece, about one couple living the life of another couple for a few hours at a time and leaving that life like they found it, and in the dream you pitch the article to numerous high-end publications, until one time when the two of you enter the apartment an alarm goes off, and you think to yourself, This must be the end of this story, and you feel two fingers jabbing your arm and your wife hissing, “Why is your alarm going off? It’s Saturday!” And as you shift worlds you think how great a story that would have been, only you know neither you nor your wife is the type of person to break into someone else’s home, so the only thing you can think to do to give voice to this story is to tap it out here and promptly forget about it.
When you come back from your first day teaching in jail and realize—after taking the train to the bus to the compound, going through three layers of security, speaking with five inmate-students in the chapel for two hours about their lives and Malcolm X and Sherman Alexie and writing and sadness and frustration and hope, boarding the bus and the train back to your apartment—that your knee, a source of near-constant pain for almost a year, hasn’t bothered you all day. You remember this because, as you sit down at your computer to write for the first time in weeks, it has started hurting again.
One of my former students now has a really fun conversational podcast called Dear Stranger and Friend, and he asked me a month or so ago to have a recorded conversation with him for it.
So now I'm in Episode 21! We talk about mixtapes and playlists, and books and words and marginalia, and kids and failure and the singular "they." Paul's a great conversationalist. Enjoy.
When you read Sartre or Beckett or Derrida or Barthes, or watch Six Feet Under, or talk to your therapist, or maybe just listen to The Head and the Heart, and you stare at the chasmic rift between your need for care and human love and beauty, and the voice booming from the other side that all these are illusions—there is no such thing as truth or transcendence or self-sacrifice, only a series of transactions between autonomous modals. There’s no such thing as love, there’s no such thing as god, there’s no such thing as you, there’s no such thing as us. And you want to talk to your wife about this but you figure she’ll either worry for you or ask you to get over it, and you want to call your mother but you’ll just end up judging her for telling you to put your life back in the hands of the god you’ve long outgrown, and you know you can’t tell your daughters the horrors of the world that they’ll discover on their own in due time. But then you talk to your wife, and she listens. And you talk to your mother, not about god but about upcoming plans to see each other. And you look at photos of kitties on your iPhone with your youngest daughter and exult in the names she comes up with for the white ones (Snow, Marshmallow, Powder Puff, Whitey) and the black ones (Midnight, Black, Blackie, Really Cooked Marshmallow). And you think of all the people you call your friends, and you know this isn’t an illusion or a lie, that you depend on every one of them to allow you to read the existentialists and absurdists and nihilists and realize that their truth is your truth, but it’s not your only truth.
In the few minutes between when we arrive at pre-K and when her class opens, I like to read to my daughter. Lately, though, all she wants to do is scroll through kitten pictures on my iPhone. Today she decided to name some of them.
"Besides Snow, we have Marshmallow, Powder Puff, and...Whitey."
"These are Midnight, Blackie, Black, Blacks, and Really Cooked Marshmallow."
When your seven-year-old daughter sees you sending off a book manuscript and asks what that is, and you tell her it’s your book, and she asks you what it’s about and you reply, “My life, mostly.” And she asks, “Like, your childhood?” and says she wants to read it, and you tell her it’s not really for kids. And she asks, brow furrowed, “Your childhood's not for kids?” Then she asks if you put in the part about getting in the newspaper for catching a tropical fish at the lake in your town when you were around her age, and you stop for a moment, manuscript in hand. “No,” you say. “I didn’t even think to put that in. That’s a good memory.” “You should put that in your next book,” she says. Make sure to put that in your next book.
I AM SO EXCITED, PEOPLE. Some of you know that a couple years ago I discovered a deep and rich hispanic tradition of microfiction (excuse me, minificción) that's informed my work since then in some profound ways (I would have never thought to do the Sneaky Feels without this work, for example). Now, for the first time, I'm sharing my work alongside some of those influences and contemporaries in the new anthology Minificción y nanofilología: Latitudes de la hiperbrevedad (Iberoamericana-Vervuert, ed. Ana Rueda). My contribution, "The Beginning and the End: Essaying History in Short Form," is one of the few English-language pieces in the collection. I'm still getting over the bolt of joy at seeing my name in the table of contents right above Ana María Shua's (Her collection Quick Fix: Sudden Fiction, in both the original Spanish and English translation by Rhonda Buchanon, is ravishingly, surreally beautiful).
Here's the link to the publisher's announcement. My Spanish-language skills are still very much a work in progress, so don't feel bad if, like me, you have to get your browser to translate to English. It's my understanding that the anthology will be available on Amazon pretty soon as well.
When you go to the federal courthouse for jury duty and sit down with 27 other potential jurors in front of a judge, a few attorneys, and a handicapped black man on a federal gun possession charge, and you get to know these 27 other people as equals, or at least variants of the same criteria—borough/town of residence, length of residence, education, work, marital status, children or other people living in the household, hobbies, newspapers, magazines, TV, or blogs you follow—and then the judge asks a few questions relevant to the case like Have you ever been a victim of a violent crime? and Have you or anyone in your family been incarcerated? and you raise your hand and say Yes, my father was incarcerated, and the judge asks For what? and How long? and you respond, Drug trafficking, and I’m not sure, I was a child then, knowing this will get you off this trial, and you feel that same admixture of relief and rejection when your name is called for dismissal knowing you’ll never see these people sharing this moment and these criteria with you again, and wonder if tomorrow you’ll say the same thing for the next jury because, after all, he’s no longer even legally your father, you don’t have to tell them anything. But you know you will. You always do.
Some of my friends and readers know I took a fairly impulsive trip to North Dakota last November, leaving the day after the election. While I am a progressive and proud of the values for which I stand, like many others after this election I’m finding myself, perhaps out of necessity, learning as I go how to be an activist. I wrote this account of my trip to Standing Rock as it happened and filled in a few blanks in the past couple of months, trying to relate my own struggle as honestly as possible. During this time I’ve wondered how (or if) I might share this struggle, but have decided finally to just post it here. I perhaps don’t look so great at times, but again, I’m learning as I go. As the Corps of Engineers closes the Oceti Sakowin camp today with possible raids by the morally bankrupt Morton County PD and leadership discusses how to build on the movement, I’m also sharing some of my photos for the first time.
On October 28, I posted this hectoring message to Facebook:
"Every person cheering the Bundy verdict in Oregon needs to now direct your energy to defending the protesters at Standing Rock. If you are truly for defending land rights against an oppressive federal government and big business, THIS IS YOUR FIGHT."
It was an impulsive post, wrought mostly by frustration at what I saw as an obvious incongruence on the American right. The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) was originally planned to run through Bismarck, but after the city confirmed the substantial risk of water contamination the pipeline presented, the company moved the path of the pipeline through the Standing Rock Reservation to its south. This is a move straight out of power broker Robert Moses’ playbook, cutting through the land with a meat cleaver and finding the path of least economic resistance to hack away. Like Moses, Energy Transfer Partners obviously consider themselves above the law, simply ignoring court orders and paying the fines, illustrating what Robert Monks found in 1933, channeling Baron Thurlow in the late Eighteenth Century, to be the cardinal error of corporate personhood: “They have no soul to save, and they have no body to incarcerate.”
I didn’t expect much of a response. In fact I got only one, from my childhood friend and bodyguard Bill. We became close in the fifth grade after I started paying him half my lunch money to keep me from getting beat up by all the boys and some of the girls in our lower-lower income school district in Kansas. He’s been in and out of prison since high school, and now resembles Phil Robertson from Duck Dynasty in both look and temperament. An ardent Trump supporter, he’s gone round and round with me for the past year, our lifelong bond mostly preventing us from stereotyping each other—he the misanthropic ex-con Trump supporter, and I the college professor liberal scum Bernie-then-Clinton supporter. I was surprised, then, to see his response: “I have been from day one! This is just crazy! This is complete disregard for anything but the dollar!” I then defensively challenged him: You go, and I’ll go.
A week later, we hatched plans to road-trip to Standing Rock, in solidarity with the Dakota and Lakota tribes to help defend their water against the Army Corps of Engineers’ and state and local police’s collusion with the corporate interests behind the Dakota Access Pipeline. We both agreed to risk arrest. I would document the trip as we went, and we would leave the morning after the election.
I mentioned the trip to my friend David, a mostly-retired colleague with an extensive knowledge in indigenous history, and he asked if he could come. Sure, I said, thinking he could moderate Bill and me. I figured Bill would be in a sour mood after what was assuredly a Clinton victory.
I’ll spare my readers the next plot point, except to say that I was operating on less than two hours’ sleep, having had the shakes all night as I sat in front of the TV, then on social media, then curled up in bed. I’d talked to my sister about whether I’d allow my mother and stepfather, who voted for Trump, to mention him to our children. I wrote H.L. Mencken quotes like “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard” on my Facebook wall and watched Bill gloat on social media. I’m just coming to terms with the fact that he viewed this election a lot like he views football games—if you win the fight, if your team wins, you talk trash. That might be what he empathizes with most in Trump.
As I was getting a coffee the morning after the election before setting out from my South Slope apartment, I ran into the mother of my four-year-old daughter’s friend. Neither of us had slept. Her eyes were red, and she gazed at me looking for a sign of welcome, then broke down silently sobbing.
“How can this happen?” she said. “How can a rich, white, arrogant man say anything he wants to anyone, and we make him President?”
I had no answer.
“Last night we made signs,” she said. “This morning, when I told him…It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Bill would undoubtedly think this was all way too dramatic, the world didn’t end or anything. I guess he would be right.
As I headed out of New York with David, I found myself grasping for direction. David had worked the ballot box all of the previous day, and he wore a stoicism that had me wondering when it would actually hit him.
As we headed toward the Holland Tunnel, I got a text from Kansas:
"Hey John, this is Kim, Bill’s wife. I just got a call that Bill is headed to Southeast Kansas to his elderly aunt’s house to help her. Her house was broken into and vandalized early this morning so he won’t be able to go with you to Standing Rock."
A few days later Bill would tell me it was “due to Trump haters breaking into an elderly family members house and garage.” At that moment, the reaction I was ashamed to admit out loud was, Wow. Lost the election and my story.
I spent some of the ride contextualizing Trump’s victory with the Standing Rock movement. Trump is deeply and mutually invested in the construction of the pipeline the Sioux are protesting, so deeply in fact that Kelcy Warren, CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, has guaranteed that the DAPL will go through once Trump is in office. Trump also has expressed interest in his campaign to abolish the EPA, and has now, since my return from Standing Rock, taken definite steps to defang the agency by appointing climate contrarian Myron Ebell to direct its transition [and now fossil fuel advocate Scott Pruitt to lead it]. In short, Trump is no friend to the water protectors at Standing Rock.
About six hours into the 30-hour trip, I began communicating with protesters who were already at the camp on Facebook groups. A person who told me about a police blockade on the north side of the main camp friended me on Facebook for approximately ten minutes, responding to three of my post-election threads before messaging me, “you are too much for me im an empath and extremely sensitive I have to unfriend you…guidance.” An indigenous trans asked for a ride from Chicago, offering even to “just hold space and pray together before you continue your travels.” It was actually very sweet, but David refused to stop at 2:00am to pray with a transsexual hitchhiker off the highway in Chicago.
We both lost cell service close to Bismarck, left with an AM radio diet of plummeting crop prices, reports on the Carfentanil epidemic in Winnipeg, Rush Limbaugh demanding that Obama bow down to president-elect Trump, and George Jones (Thank you for the respite, Country 1130). Driving to camp from Bismarck on Highway 6, we saw the pipeline snaking through the dead grass in a giant brown ditch over the horizon. Its imposition on the landscape can only be described as brutal, violent. I then understood why so many water protectors had dubbed it the Black Snake. It was perhaps the most haunting image of the trip.
When we got to Cannon Ball, we followed directions to Sacred Stone Camp. After being waved in by a young man who asked us if we were unarmed, we drove to a circle of tents and wondered where the rest of the camp was. A man named Alexander politely told us that we were at the wrong camp. Oceti Sakowin, or Council of the Seven Fires, camp was down the road in the other direction from Cannon Ball.
At the entrance to Oceti Sakowin camp, we both immediately realized the magnitude of the movement. Looking down from the entrance at the top of the hill, the thoroughfare was lined with hundreds of flags representing myriad indigenous nations and tribes, many of whom hadn’t shared space since the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. Men and boys rode painted horses bareback, and let them wander freely to drink from the Missouri River. There were plenty of cars, all coated with a layer of Dakota dust thick enough to obscure them from view at the camp’s entrance. We told the men at the entrance we were new, and asked what we should do.
“Keep moving,” one of them said.
Once we found a spot and made camp, David and I found the main tent, where we could almost always hear a microphone with a revolving cast of speakers. One of the organizers immediately put us to work sorting through recent donations, which took up probably a hundred square feet of space. As I was sorting coats I heard the speaker talk about dinner options.
“Getting closer to eating time, hope everyone fills up but if you’re eating at the main hall just be aware of the limited portions and don’t take more than you need. I know Rose has some good stuff cooking at her place, some chicken soup and even some of her own fry bread. Just follow your nose.”
After an hour or two, I wandered to the top of the camp called Facebook Hill, where people see if they can get internet access and charge their devices very slowly with a solar power generator that actor Mark Ruffalo donated. I talked to a woman at the Red Owl Legal Services [since redubbed the Water Protectors’ Legal Collective] tent, who had me fill out a questionnaire of my contact information, emergency contact, etc., in case I got arrested.
“My wife and the friend I traveled with made me promise not to get arrested while I’m here,” I said.
“There haven’t been any arrests in the past couple of weeks,” she responded, “but we like to be safe. Even our camp here is the property of the Corps of Engineers, so technically we all could be arrested. Up until a few weeks ago police would patrol the outer edges of the camp and pick people up on misdemeanor charges and take them to stations as far away as Fargo, so when people would inevitably be released they’d have a hard time getting back to camp. Speaking of which, can you pull one of your sleeves up?”
She handed me a permanent marker. “I’m going to tell you the number here, and I want you to write it on your forearm. This is the number to call, no matter where you are, and we’ll come get you. Also, if you end up at a police station, tell them your name, where you’re from, and your emergency contact information, then exercise your right to remain silent, ask to speak with your lawyer, and call this number. And remember that every time you speak you’ve waived your Miranda rights, and you’ll have to restate them when officers ask you more questions.”
But I didn’t plan on being arrested.
“Many of the people who’ve been arrested so far didn’t plan on it. I do believe Morton County Police are changing their plan though; we seem to have clogged their system sufficiently that they had to. That’s why they’ve been using rubber bullets and pepper spray lately. I think now they’re recalibrating for the increased media coverage.”
“And maybe because one of their investors is now our president-elect,” I added.
“Yes, perhaps that too. You say it’s your first day? My advice is to look around, introduce yourself as often as possible, but remember that this isn’t your movement. The indigenous folks who’ve been here from day one—” She paused. “—They have a mixed opinion of all us white folks coming in. If they don’t want to talk to you, don’t push it. And remember: We are here to help, and then we get to go home. This is their home.”
By the time I met back up with David, both of us were feeling pretty hungry. We found the main dining hall, a series of three military canvas tents, each of which probably held twenty people. Dinner was bison chili, or would have been if it hadn’t been gone by the time we arrived. A number of dry rations were left on the table, so I grabbed myself some Fig Newtons and suggested we try Rose’s Kitchen. I’d seen her trailer, airbrushed with a rose and her name, so we followed our noses the rest of the way to it.
Rose’s Kitchen consisted of a fire, a big pot, a small pot or two, and a covered seating area that fit perhaps eight or ten people. That space was filled when we arrived for dinner, and many people were gathered around the fire itself. Rose, we soon found out, is from Oregon. She works in some sort of counseling or therapy position, but when the tribes gathered she told her boss at the hospital where she works that she had to go to help. I hope her position is graciously reserved for her on her return, but that may not be anytime soon. “I’m here for the duration,” she said.
A couple of what looked like kettles were the only things remaining on the grate above the fire. “Coffee?” I asked.
“No,” Rose replied. “We don’t do coffee here.” I looked into the pot, took what I thought would be a fair share of the scant rice and chicken at the bottom, and got a piece of the most delicious fry bread I’ve ever had. David offered to do some work for Rose the next day in exchange for the food.
“Come to think of it, I could use a couple people to move my firewood from the pile out front under the tarp,” she said. At least half the people eating knew Rose. She obviously enjoyed having a full table, and took time to talk to everyone she didn’t know.
Around the fire stood a couple of middle-aged native women and two young white women. “I’m just so scared,” one of the young women said. “I feel such a hopelessness after this election. I don’t know…”
“Now is the time we have to remember prayer,” Dar, a 50-something native woman, said. “You have to remember, we value prayer not as an individual act but as a communal one. Let me tell you about when my son got in an accident on his fourwheel. Broke nearly every bone in his body. He was in intensive for so much time, nobody thought he would come through. But I got ahold of our elders first thing, had them burning tobacco leaves and praying, and slowly, my boy got better. The doctors all said they never seen nothing like it, but I expected it all along. Now he’s got a good job, married, I don’t have to worry about him, because he’s got a community of prayer behind him. Let me show you all something—just take each other’s hand and look into the fire and each other.”
We did, awkwardly. Dar was on my left and took one of my hands. “You are all in prayer right now, the kind of prayer I’m talking about.” Then she turned to me and took both of my hands in hers. “You have the coldest hands I’ve ever felt.”
I pulled my hands away slowly. I feared whatever it was this woman was offering. I was scared, of a power none of us could see that was out to destroy everything this camp stood for. But Dar was asking something far more difficult from us: to welcome a power none of us could see, and to acknowledge that we were part of a bigger story, that we could even be its agents, but that none of us was the story. This was the first intimation I had of what moves this movement.
“Come to the water ceremony tomorrow morning,” she told me. “I think you need it.”
The North Dakota badlands at night are bone-achingly cold. It was only after my first night outside that I truly understood the courage of a protest that could last long into the Dakota winter. At 10 p.m. on the first night from the inside of my heated car, I felt like a fraud. I also understood why they are chopping firewood at the camp from day to night. The warmth of the fire at Rose’s place drew us all around it and made us interact, if only through the shared dependence on the heat. Before I left for Standing Rock, my childhood friend Adrian posted on Facebook his estimate of how many gallons of crude oil my trip would take, justifying the need for the pipeline I was ostensibly protesting. Now I was sitting in my heated car thinking about how much gas I was expending so that I could stay warm and comfortable enough to write about this struggle, a key component of which is our dependence on expendable energy resources.
I woke at 3 a.m. with a start. David was tapping on the window and shining his light in my face.
“Turn the car off!” he said. I’d fallen asleep with it running. “They’re gonna need the whole pipeline just to give you a good night’s sleep!”
I turned off the ignition, and David went back to the tent. I then watched a steady light creep over one side of the camp, and decided to watch the sunrise. Only then the light turned off over the mountain, and I realized that what I thought was the sun was the light generated by crews working through the night on the pipeline.
At 5 a.m. a series of large trucks came barreling down the camp entrance, and a megaphoned voice yelled, “It’s a great morning! Time for some peaceful protest! We’ve been up for three hours, how about you?” After the trucks parked, a number of voices began chanting and praying. David made us coffee with some canned heat and a French press, and we listened to the “marvelously consonant-free” (David’s words) voices coming from the main tent.
The people camped next to us turned on their truck and a bright spotlight shone out the back of it as they prepared their fire.
“Turn that off!” someone shouted from a camp on the other side of us. “People’s trying to pray! Show some respect!” It was not lost on me that he was probably yelling at me, since I was the one who’d been running my car all night.
As the light slowly penetrated the smoke and the fog of the camp, we realized everything—the car, the tents, the hay on the ground—was coated with a thick layer of frost. A filmmaker with an Australian accent walked up to us with his handheld camera, and David spoke with him about his own Jewish heritage, and how ecology is inherently related to genocide—take away a people’s ability to hunt, gather, and grow their own food, and you take away their independence, their livelihood, their personhood. Once they are not people, you may do anything to them without recourse.
At 8:30 or so, David and I went out to walk and find the main hall for the morning orientation and meeting (the main hall being, like all other “halls,” a fairly large canvas tent). The morning fog was so thick we could see it move, separating and shapeshifting around us, and we could see nothing else more than fifteen feet around us.
“Do you know where you’re going?” I asked David.
“Of course I do,” he said. “Vaguely.” We traversed the camp a few feet at a time until we came to an open courtyard-type space with a ceremony being performed and a large group of people around it. A woman was praying over a metal pitcher of water and inviting people to drink of it.
“Hey, didn’t you mention someone talking about a water thing last night?” David asked me.
David is a Jewish atheist, and scoffs at ceremony. He’d already been invited to a tribal dance earlier in the morning while I was writing, and came back telling me how bad he felt saying no when they asked him to dance with the tribe’s warriors. “I don’t know what to do about that aspect of this protest. So much of it seems centered around a religious impulse, and I just want to do the work.” He knows I used to be fundamentalist Christian, but has always been fairly uninterested in my life before I became agnostic. Both of us, a recovering Christian and a non-practicing Jew, had been struggling with the overtly spiritual elements of the movement. When he saw this water ceremony in progress, though, he said, “I think you should join it.”
David went to the morning orientation. Two women, one possibly a man, motivated campers around a simple theme: You are not special, and your privilege is getting in the way. They instructed campers, in gentle tones, that they were not here to observe but to help, and they didn’t deserve the attention of anyone who’d been here longer than them. Both orientation leaders were white, and David said that if they were not white he wasn’t sure if they would have held everyone’s attention the way they did. He left with a sense of duty, and got right to work.
Meanwhile the women with the water were leaving the courtyard with a large group of people in their wake when I joined them. The flags of the hundreds of indigenous tribes and nations lining the thoroughfare emerged through the fog individually as we followed the female elders through most of the camp singing songs, some in English but most in native languages, and offering water to anyone we passed. If someone wanted to, they could receive a bit in cupped hands, drink it, and dip their faces in it. I was an interloper here, and well aware of it. But I felt a part of this, in the way that ceremony unites people with a common, synchronous action. It seemed, to my post-fundamentalist model, akin to baptism, only you could receive cleansing anytime you wanted rather than once a lifetime. I began singing along as we continued, especially the songs for which I had no linguistic filter. It felt good to pronounce the syllables, especially the rallying cry: Mni Wiconi, Mni Wiconi! I saw, momentarily at least, as so many of the camp drank from the water that this was part of what made this whole thing more than protest. Sharing what they—we—are protecting reaffirms the stakes of the movement. This water is all of ours.
Eventually, we arrived at a very small dock on the banks of the Missouri River, just down from the proposed pipeline and area of the most conflict and media exposure. The women had the men line up on either side of the path down to the dock, and the men offered their hands to all of the women in the group following them—which now included over 200 people—as they made their way down to the dock to take a bit of dried tobacco in one hand and have the women with the pitcher pour a bit of water over each of their hands with the tobacco into the river. “After all of the ladies go through we’ll have the men who identify as women, then the men, then the women who identify as men. Women, if you are on your moon, we ask that you close your hand when offered the tobacco.”
Slowly, over the course of about an hour, each woman came down to the water, clasping hands with the men for support down what became more and more of a slippery slope as more people broke up the frozen clay. After the men, myself included, came down and accepted the tobacco and water, the woman leading the ceremony said she’d like to give a short water parable. She told of “Grampa Dan,” an elder who told her stories when she was a child and held at home from boarding school. Grampa Dan, a fisherman, told her that no water was meant to be divided as property—it just didn’t suit its nature. The first thing the white man did when he arrived, Grampa Dan told her, was he had us start drinking dirty water. Coffee, tea: dirty water. Once the non-natives made it clear that they were going to both dirty and divide the water, the natives made one simple and unenforceable rule: Whoever laid claim to any water must find a stone the size of his heart, throw it as far into the water as he could, and that was the only water he could lay claim to. But getting the indigenous people to drink “dirty water” also seemed to implicitly foreshadow the true nature of their water colonization: contamination. It was a simple, satisfying parable, and I—descendent of colonial forebears—felt its simple, unexplainable wisdom.
The women then ascended back up the riverbank, the men helping them in the same way, until everyone was up the bank. I didn’t wear gloves, and hundreds of hands—male, female, non-gender-specific—held mine. And for the first time since I arrived, my hands were warm.
Less than a month after I returned from Standing Rock, most of the non-Sioux left after the Corps of Engineers declined an easement and asked that Energy Transfer Partners conduct more environmental studies and propose alternative routes. This of course was not an unequivocal victory, but it was significant enough that only the core water protectors are staying over the long cold winter until the story’s next act plays out. After Donald Trump assumed the presidency in January and signed executive orders in favor of both DAPL and the Keystone pipeline, the Corps of Engineers not only granted the easement but expedited the process and waived the required studies. All of this could easily lead me to a circular view of American progress shared by many indigenous Americans: one government official’s promises, even in writing, are only as good as the word of the official who takes his place. And that’s rarely any good.
But. We sustain nonetheless. We fight, even with the foresight that we’ll probably lose. This, to me, is the closest we come to purity of heart and intention, something David and I spent much of the 30-hour drive home from North Dakota in November talking out. Discussing what we learned and what the next steps of our involvement might be, I told him my only regret was that I didn’t make it to the front lines to participate in direct action.
“What would you have done if you got arrested?” he asked. “What would I have done? Drive your car back and tell your wife you’re stuck in jail?”
“There were no arrests this week,” I retorted weakly. This was the week before the massive police attack involving water cannons, concussion grenades, tear gas, and pepper spray that injured roughly 200 water protectors.
“You know you can’t know that going in.” David paused, then smiled a smile that I imagine the two orientation leaders gave when telling everyone their privilege was getting in the way.
“I’m going to tell you something, and it will probably hurt,” he said. “When you told me on the way that you wanted to be arrested, I knew you didn’t mean it. You told me even then—and you might have just been making excuses—but you told me you didn’t think you’d be arrested anyway, you were just wanting to show support. If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past few days, it’s that to effectively face down oppressive authorities in the ways these people are teaching, you have to have a pure heart. And you did not have a pure heart. You planned this trip around a story you wanted to write about you and your friend, and your disenchantment with a Trump presidency. You pitched it, and thought it would write itself. Every one of the people who are there for the long haul, their story’s not important except as part of the larger struggle. You went in planning on leaving. The people who are going to effect change here, if that’s possible—indigenous or white or whatever—are the people who aren’t planning on leaving. Even when they have to leave.”
When on an unseasonably warm Sunday in February you take your children to the beach and find yourself unexpectedly pining for the home of your childhood, where there was no beach and the only water was the dammed brown rivers and reservoirs and the only stone was the gravel on parking lots and unpaved roads, but at least it warmed more quickly in the spring. You remember every Easter being rife with greens and yellows and new baby chicks whose adult heads you would eventually cut off and watch red spatter frantically over the soiled stump that autumn, whereas March in the Northeast is a month of grays and Easter is a day to plant peapods in your 11x7 garden box that you hope might grow and hatch green before being burnt off by the sudden onset of city summer. But now, on this blue-hued day, you gather clam shells that your daughters will paint and sell in front of their grandparents’ house after you leave them here, and your youngest daughter, as you are leaving, will stifle sobs long enough to say she’ll miss you, then place a tiny crab claw, faded from the winter, into your hand and say, This is to remember me.