I’m 95% certain I’ve told you about this tree before – it’s the ancient chestnut tree a few houses North of the original 21st Buddha and I’ve walked past it at least once a week for about 10-ish years now. Because it’s sited at the end of the block its massive canopy shades much of both streets, creating a lovely green light for quite a stretch. Really, this thing is absolutely massive and it would probably take four large-ish adults with good wingspans to encircle its trunk. The other noteworthy thing about this tree is that some unknown number of years ago, certainly more than the 10 I’ve been visiting it, someone built a circular bench around the tree. The bench was probably installed to make a pleasant place to sit on a summer day and maybe read a book or have a little tea party.
I don’t know whether when it was first built if it was snug up against the tree or if the tree had a little breathing space, but for the last 10 years the tree has been slowly busting the bench – at least on one side. Around the other side of the tree, the bench is caught on the bark and is raised cattywampus off the ground because although the bench is strangling the tree, the tree is still growing and its forcing the bench to at least somewhat accommodate its growth.
The part of the bench that’s collapsing is the part facing the walkway into the house, right where the people who live there and who could remove the bench surely walk multiple times a day. Do you think maybe they’ve just grown so accustomed to seeing the tree straining against the bench that they don’t actually see it anymore? The bench has been strangling the tree for all of the 10 years I’ve been going by this place and its not subtle, but clearly in all that time the people who live there have opted not to do anything about this even as they’ve made other interventions in their yard. It’s mindboggling. How hard would it be to take this thing apart that is clearly messed up and is clearly impinging on a living entity in their midst?
And you know what – just now writing to you is the first time it occurred to me that I could maybe help. If I’ve walked by it about once a week for 10-ish years then conservatively, I’ve walked by and tut-tutted around 500 times and it’s only now that I’m realizing I could write out a sign that says something like “Please Free This Tree – Remove the Bench” and hang it inside the fence facing their front window. I don’t know whether it will do any good, but clearly walking by and tut-tutting to myself is not getting jack done to help the tree so I’ll do this tomorrow morning and will report back.
And while the tree/bench situation is a real thing, it is, of course a stand-in for my relationship to racism, to systemic racism. As in, what the hell took me so long?
Someone from church shared something he heard Robin DiAngelo (author of White Fragility) say in response to a white person asking “what can white people do?” Here’s a paraphrase of his paraphrase:
‘How is it that you didn’t know about systemic and structural racism before now? The information is not difficult to find; there are decades worth of scholarship on it. Police brutality against Black people has been well-researched and the issue has been publicized for many years now. What has allowed you, as a white person, to move through life, if not unaware, at least, not concerned enough to prioritize the issue before now as one in need of serious concern and some sort of action?’
She went on and asked the person to think about “why now, why weren’t you moved to action when Eric Garner or Tamir Rice or Charleena Lyles were murdered by police? Why do you think it took until now?”
These are hard, pointed questions and although I’m telling you about them because I think they are important, I need to do the squirmy self-interrogation they demand privately. And, I also need to not wait until I figure it all out (as if I could) to show up and work at being an earnest, if still fairly inept antiracist.
May we make this place safe and habitable for all.
May those of us who need to, be willing to ask ourselves “why now?”
May those of us who need it, have the strength and resolve to hang in for the answers.
And may we also accept that we have to take risks, that we can’t wait until we have it all figured out.