I have watched the blood of a young Black man fill the cracks in the sidewalk and then, viscous, not yet coagulated, overflow the curb and drain like a curtain of paint into the gutter, mixing with grit and oil and cigarette butts, down into the sewer. Later, a fire hose washed everything clean—except for the body of the young Black man which, at that time, I imagine, was lying on a tray in a fridge at the city morgue.
Later that month, a young White woman pulled up her short shorts and showed me a series of small round scars pockmarking her inner thighs. Nasty pink things, overlapping one another, too many to count all at once. She explained that her dad liked to smoke after sex. She was the ashtray. And the sex.
A few years later, I watched a client fold in on herself, a body collapsing around itself, a body no longer possessed by herself, a self no longer capable of sustaining a body, a self no longer itself, as she eventually managed to explain that she had just been raped in an alleyway one block away from where I worked. At the time that she was raped, I think I was eating potato chips in shift change and listening to a co-worker drone on and on and on and I thought maybe his drone was going to last forever. But it didn’t. Nothing does.
I don’t know how many of these stories to tell. I carry so many of them inside of me. I don’t know if I should tell any of them. Who deserves to read them? Who has the right to tell them?
A month ago, I was camping with a dear friend who was reeling from all the deaths of loved ones due to the current fentanyl-related crisis among people who use drugs (which is really a Rule of Law crisis, not a drug crisis). It seemed to me that his grief was overwhelming him, that he was barely keeping it together—and that’s when he was drunk. I’m not sure if being sober was even an option. Probably not for very long.
“You need to find a way to bury your dead,” I said to him. “You can’t carry them all around with you. Create your own rituals if the regular mourning practices don’t work for you. Find whatever works. You can’t carry them all. They’re too heavy. It’s too much. It will annihilate you.”
And, me? I’m pretty good at burying my dead. I’ve learned how to let my dead be dead. I just struggle with letting my raped be raped, my tortured be tortured, my abandoned be abandoned.
In the summer, I try to go to the beach with Jessica as much as possible. The beach feels like home to her and, with the help of a large umbrella, sunscreen that goes on like a thick paste, and a few good books, I can make it work for me, too. I like seeing how happy Jessica is when we are there. It makes me genuinely excited to go to the beach.
When we were there two days ago, the Naadowewe-gichigami was almost perfectly still and the air was nearly cloudless and the angle of the light on the water caused the horizon to vanish and the water and the sky blended seamlessly together and you couldn’t tell where one stopped and the other started. Going back over the dune, up the tire stairs embedded in the sand, we turned and stopped to take a picture. It was beautiful.
And lately I’ve been taking pictures of the detritus that accumulates and scatters in the camps and squats that persist by the river close to my apartment. I call this nature photography because that’s what it is. Grocery carts gone feral lingering in the underbrush beside the trail, needle wrappers and cookers migrating across the flood plains with every ebb and flow of the waterline, a sports bra and a bandana tangled in the foliage at the base of a wall attached to nothing. A dime bag stomped into the dirt. Multiple fire pits with fresh piles of dry wood prepped and ready to burn. Every now and then, a man emerges, from behind a tree, from sitting on a fallen log, from under the shelter of an upturned root system that is a few hundred years old. His right hand quickly goes into a pocket. Mine does, too. But I nod and wave and he does the same. We don’t speak. I move on. This is also beautiful.
But most beautiful of all was seeing an old friend, whom I think about most everyday. He jumped off his bike and as it clattered to the ground, we threw our arms around each other and said, “It’s so good to see you!” And most beautiful of all is seeing my kids when they get back from visiting their grandparents on the farm and they yell, “Daddy!” and jump all over me and let me kiss them over and over and sniff their hair which still smells like childhood. And most beautiful of all is standing in the yard at night while the dog pees and watching the fireflies that have suddenly appeared everywhere this year and I don’t know if they are related to changes in the weather pattern, the super humid days, the sudden bursts of rain, the thunderstorms and almost-tornados that have become increasingly frequent the last few years, or if they were always here and I just never noticed them before. And most beautiful of all is Jessica when, well, when she does anything, anywhere, ever.
What I mean is gosh and wow and yeah, it’s all so, so beautiful. Life is beautiful, although I think (or rather hope) that there are ways to say that without making things like the Holocaust into a warm and fuzzy, Oscar-winning film—or making the murder, torture, and rape of those whom I have loved (and who have loved me) into a warm and fuzzy blog post.
Theodor Adorno, of course, would disagree. If poetry is impossible after Auschwitz (as he asserted), then surely this is the case because beauty itself cannot exist after Auschwitz. After Auschwitz, it is impossible for life to be beautiful. The case for this perspective is only made more compelling when we come to understand (as I have) that the Holocaust is not some utterly unique singularity within history. Relentless genocide, it turns out, is as common as Canadian flags on Canada day, as American as apple pie, and as foundational to the Occident as the Cartesian subject, the Protestant work ethic, Darwin’s theory of evolution, the printing press, the clock, racism, and the computer chip.
Here, one thinks of Walter Benjamin, a dear friend of Adorno, whose suicide by morphine overdose (the precursor to fentanyl) was prompted because he did not live after Auschwitz—he lived during Auschwitz and, it seemed to him, all the future held was Auschwitz. And this, I think, is the great lesson of our age—there is no after Auschwitz. The history of civilization as we know it, as we celebrate it, the history of us, is one unending death march, one unending train ride, one unending Lager, one unending shower. We, the living, the gainfully-employed, the beach-goers, the social workers, the parents taking pets out one last time before bed, we just happen to be on the right side of the barbed wire. Today’s #blessed is yesterday’s #SeigHeil.
But … I don’t know … even with more than 7.6 billion people living on the earth today, we only account for one ten thousandth of the planet’s total biomass. Fungi are taking up way more room than we are (accounting for one fiftieth of all biomass). And they’ve been around for a lot longer than us. The first homo sapiens sapiens appeared about two hundred thousand years ago. The earliest fungus fossil we have found goes back nine hundred million to one billion years. And, compared to bacteria, which go back at least 3.5 billion years, the fungi are just young adults. Which is not to say that things haven’t been killing and dying and accidentally annihilating one another since the beginning, but it is to say that other things go back just as far. Other things run just as deep. Cormac McCarthy got it wrong when he looked at the evening redness in the West—violence is not the bones of the world. It’s just one bone. Maybe a rib. That’s all. Not the whole thing. Not even close. Look at a diatom under a microscope. Look at a dinoflagellate. Look at the formation of dendritic copper crystals. Look at the colours made by cyanobacteria in the hot springs of Ísland. Beauty is there. It always has been. It always will be. And it takes up a lot more space than we do.
So when my daughter sings (I have to close my eyes when I listen because she’s shy—although that doesn’t stop her from singing in front of her whole school), and when my son gives me a high-five and exclaims, “Let’s go!” when we capture a legendary Pokémon, and when Jessica tilts her head just the way she does so that I can kiss her on the forehead when I welcome her home, and I feel my heart swell within me, I have not forgotten the blood of the young Black man, I have not forgotten the scars of the young White girl, I have not forgotten the collapse of my client, I have not forgotten Auschwitz and all our genocides, but I know that what I witness in my daughter, in my son, in Jessica, is just as old, just as real, and just as strong as every other thing that is and was and will be. Gratitude, too, is one of the bones of the world. It, too, persists.