“I want to say something about the shooting. But I’m out of words. I found just enough, scraped out of the corners with a corner of a spoon, to say: I’m so sorry. We are together. Here are a few threads of hope. But that’s all I’ve got. That’s all I’ve got….”
This episode refers to the school shooting in Nashville on March 27, 2023.
Editor’s note: While Leela says that to zir memory only one student was killed in the shooting at Simon’s Rock at Bard College in 1992, there were in fact two people killed: one student and one professor, as well as four others wounded.
Transcript and notes:
Recorded 30 March 2023
I'm feeling stopped up. The way I do with writer's block. But this is something else.
I want to say something about the shooting. But I'm out of words. I found just enough, scraped out of the corners with a corner of a spoon, to say to the members of the trans organization of which I am the interim director: "I'm so sorry. We are together. Here are a few threads of hope."
But that's all I've got. That's all I've got. But I want to say something. But that's all I've got. But I'm preaching on Sunday. But that's all I've got. And even though I am surrounded by some of the very best people in the world, in my family, in my community, in my professional life- I feel so alone.
I think this is the tragedy, the danger of ongoing trauma and moral injury. That we begin to withdraw from ourselves from each other, we pull in our tendrils, because they keep getting singed. But when we cut off the finest of our roots, we stop reaching for nutrients. We stop reaching for nourishment, we stop drinking, we stop eating, we stop being in community.
I know you've heard by now that trees talk to one another. That forests are entire living organisms. That they battle both internally and externally but also that they share food, water, information, defense. I'm sure you've heard that. But what happens if we take a tree away from other trees? If we take a tree away from every other living thing? If we bury a tree in cement and move it fifty feet from the nearest other tree? Or a hundred? Or a thousand? A football field? A city block?
How far do trees get from each other before they stop talking? Can the grass serve as a relay, as messengers? What about poison ivy or skunk cabbage or moldering leaves? Candy wrappers? How about if the candy wrappers paper can carry a message from this tree across the parking lot to that one? What are our candy wrappers? If we pull in our fingers and our toes, if we stop talking, if we stop embracing, if we stop breathing on each other because we might kill each other- How shall we touch?
Because the answer isn't we shan't. That is as surely fatal as breathing each other's breath. How shall we touch? What tumbleweed can I send from my hands to yours? What sounds over the airwaves, what pixels and dots? What paper? Can I send you a letter? Can I send you a card? I was supposed to send cards to a group of people back in January. It's not January anymore, but I still have the addresses. I think I might sit down and write those cards soon. More than just the cursory two lines. Because how can I not tell people, with whom I am actively working to survive, that I love them? In this world. How shall we touch?
My friend Kate does her podcast out of a basement studio. I have the impression that she doesn't have to worry about trucks going by. But I can't think in the dark. I mean I can think in the dusk or the dawn, or the middle of the night, but I can't think in the basement. Even though I'm surrounded by roots, and earth. I need to be up where I can see the sun. I'm more of a plant than I like to admit. And I know that I cannot live without touching. I've known this for years.
I discovered in my college library, and I believe it was the HQ section of the Library of Congress cataloging. I think it was on the third floor of the library, which was a weird place because you walked in on the fourth floor and you went down. I think it was on the third floor of the library. It got quieter as you went further down, the second floor was quieter, the first floor was archives, you could almost not hear your own breath on the first floor.
But I think this book was on the fairly well-populated and full-of-napping-students third floor. It was in the HQ section. And it talked- for the first time I heard about oxytocin, and how people need it and how it comes from skin contact. And I felt so seen, so understood. Because I had been talking for years about skin hunger, but nobody knew what I meant. It wasn't really a thing that everybody was talking about in the early 90s. But I was.
I was talking about it, because I had it because I was so desperate for touch. I know I cannot live without touching. And I know that I cannot live if I get COVID. And so living in the midst of this persistent pandemic, isolating from people. I can't just walk to the coffee shop on the corner and hang out. I would be taking my life in my hands. I know we don't like to think about it like that. And it does, it wears away at us. But it's also true.
I live in this city so that I am not also taking my life in my hands by stepping out the front door, and looking like I look. And there are, as we all know, fewer and fewer states where that is true. And even parts of this state. Parts of this state aren't safe either. Most of this state is not safe. I want to live in a place where I'm free to live wherever I want and be safe. This country is not capable of giving me that. And it is not giving our children that.
And I want to say something hopeful. And the hopeful thing- the hopeful thing is that we could make different choices tomorrow. It is also the immensely frustrating thing. That we could make different choices tomorrow and so far- so far, we are not making different choices. So far, we are choosing this.
I know I'm gonna offend somebody by saying that people who are choosing not to wear masks are choosing this. But they are. They're choosing isolation for people who are vulnerable. They're choosing long-term illness. I know that's not popular. But it's true. There is nothing, nothing in the science that shows us anything different. Nothing. It is as plain as the situation with the guns.
I need to tell you something about my relationship to guns, because this is important. I grew up in a suburb, a suburb of a major city, where the only thing guns ever did was kill people. And I learned from my mother that the only things guns ever did were bad. I definitely had to learn exactly how bad the policing system is, but I learned it in bits and pieces as I grew older. By the time I was an adult, a young adult, I was pretty much firmly anti-guns. I was also vegetarian.
In the years since then, I have lived in communities sustained by hunting. I have learned how close good hunters live to the land, and the trees, the forest, the streams. I have learned that across cultures, across cultures, good hunters are in deep relationship with the animals they hunt. I have learned that guns have a place. I have learned that plants have feelings.
I have learned more deeply that in order to stay alive, we must cause suffering. The question is how little can we cause?
I have learned from Braiding Sweetgrass, about the interrelationships of things in a way that I felt but did not have words for. I have learned about noble harvest, from watching lobster fishermen in Maine. From watching the wild things grow. From foraging a little bit. There are good things that guns do. But not all guns. And not all contexts.
Guns are one of the ways that humans and the rest of the world interact. I actually now think that the most ethical way to get meat is by hunting. I eat meat, because otherwise I do not survive. My particular body constitution does not support anything else. I cannot bring myself to hunt, yet. But I feel that that would be the right thing to do. I am even coming to understand the place that fur has. When it's part of a larger context, when it's part of part of a bigger picture, when it's part of respecting the whole animal, the life that it has given for our lives.
I did not used to feel this way about hunting or guns. But I do know that I believe that guns should never ever be used to hunt people. And that some guns are completely unsuitable to hunting for food. The only thing they are suited to is mowing down human lives. And we have got to stop allowing that to happen.
My first memory of school shooting goes back before Columbine. Goes back to Simon's Rock at Bard College. In the 1990s. I knew someone who was a student there. So I heard about the shooting in the library from my friend who was a student there. Maybe it doesn't count by today's standards, because if I recall correctly, only one student was actually killed. But to my mind, that was the first one. We've had a long time to fix this. A very long time.
And we have chosen not to. For a very long time. We know what to do to make our lives better. We know what would make our lives better. All I have to say is that we need to start doing those things.
And we can. Collectively, we can make different choices, different decisions. Anytime we want, we can just start. Maybe I should be letting myself rant and cry and shout. But right now I'm also weary, and that's a lot of energy. So I'm going to end with this brief story.
The Audubon Society has been called the Audubon Society for a very long time. Audubon was a naturalist. He was also an enslaver and grave robber. And so various parts of the Audubon naming structure have been reckoning with that, and whether they want to keep his name attached to their good work. The National Audubon Society decided, yes, they would keep his name.
What did other chapters, member societies do? They're choosing, many of them, to make other decisions. They're finding other names. They're calling themselves something else because their work is about being naturalists, about birds and preservation of wild spaces. The work is not about promoting enslavement. Their work is not about supporting grave robbery. Their work is not about disrespecting indigenous people. And so they're changing their names.
The smaller organizations are changing their names, even in the face of the national organization deciding that it was okay. "It was okay, we're gonna pretend that it doesn't matter." We can make other decisions. Our local communities, our small communities, our churches, can make other decisions. Our synagogues can make other decisions. Our mosques can make other decisions. Our religious communities of all kinds, our temples, can make other decisions. We can make other decisions. Our covens can make other decisions. Our school districts can make other decisions.
Our states our cities, our counties can make other decisions. We can make other decisions. We can hold our mask mandates in one place. We can stop accepting the presence of guns. I know people can go buy them somewhere else. But remember when cigarettes started to go out of fashion? Remember how easy it was to get cigarettes at one point. And now it's not. Remember how easy it was to walk through a cloud of smoke? And now it's not.
Or maps. Remember when paper maps were a thing? And you could walk into any gas station and pick up a paper map for any part of the local area or the United States as a whole? Remember that? Atlases everywhere. Maybe you don't remember that. I remember that. One time, maybe, I don't know, ten years ago, I was in Boston. And I was staying with a friend in Jamaica Plain, which for those of you who know Boston, you'll know that it's kind of an isolated neighborhood. Even though it's part of Boston, it doesn't really connect to the rest of Boston very easily.
And so I was coming back later at night than I had expected, with no battery charge. My phone had died. And I didn't have a charger on me. And this is before chargers were universal. It was I don't remember what kind of connector but it wasn't like I could walk into a gas station and just buy a charger and sit there and charge up for 10 minutes. So I was coming back. I got off the T. I was walking back to the house where I was staying and I got completely turned around.
It was late, after dark. I stopped into the only thing I could find that was open which was a gas station. I was like surely they'll have a map of Boston in this gas station. The clerk looked at me like I was asking for a relic from the ancient world. And finally, we found one lone tattered map on the back of a dusty spinner that had been shoved into the corner next to the counter, facing some candy bars that were almost certainly expired.
And the clerk watched in amazement as I unfolded it, asked what streets we were on. Used the index to look up the quadrant to find our location. I said, "Does this look like where we are?" And the clerk squinted and turned it this way and that, and then finally allowed as how it looked like probably that was where we were. And I said, "okay, is it this way or that way?" And eventually, we did figure out probably where I needed to go based on the address of my host. And this archaic technology paper map.
But maps disappeared from our landscape, because we didn't use them that way anymore. Paper maps. We weren't using a lot anymore. So people stopped stocking them. People stopped knowing how to read them. People stopped using them, right?
Like slide rules. My father is a whiz with a slide rule. I've no idea how to use one. Things disappear when we don't engage them, when we don't permit them. When we don't allow them, when we censure them. And when we legislate against them. We can make different choices.
It's time that we did.