I’ve been back to visit the huge maple (turns out it’s not chestnut after all – not sure how I made that mistake, their leaf shapes are super different) that has the way too tight bench constricting it a bunch of times since I wrote to you about it last month. The residents of the house adjacent to the tree took down the “please free the tree by removing the bench” sign that I made right away, but sadly the bench is still there. My first couple of times going back to check the bench I thought they’d removed a small portion of it that’s facing their walkway, but it turns out that it was the gap I’d noticed before but hadn’t recognized just how much the tree had forced the edges apart right there. It was definitely not that the homeowners had removed a section of the bench. I think I was confused because they’d piled a bunch of gardening stuff on other parts of the bench making it look different enough that this, combined with my wishful thinking, led me to see what I wanted to see, which was anything that would free up the tree even a little bit.
I’ve been debating whether to leave another sign. It seems kind of pointless, but sometimes people need to be nudged multiple times before they get that doing something that’s a hassle is actually a good idea and worth the effort.
And yes, for the record, I’ve considered whether there’s any possible rational justification for leaving the bench in place and for the record, I’ve concluded that there’s not. The bench is absolutely not holding up the tree in any way – the tree is huge and sturdy, it’s perfectly capable of holding itself up. While the bench has become a shelf for random garden implements, it’s almost certainly not affording the house inhabitants a spot for comfortable respite – it’s narrow and jacked up on one side, making any sort of prolonged sitting untenable. Although the tree’s bark is starting to grow around the bench in places, it wouldn’t damage the tree to pull the bench away from it. I seriously can’t think of any other justifications for leaving the bench other than stubbornness, laziness, willful ignorance, or meanness.
I’ll let you know if I leave them another note (if I do, I’ll strive for diplomacy as it’s a sure bet that calling them out isn’t going to do the tree any good).
So why all the focus on this tree and the offending bench? Well, grasshopper – or better yet, locust – I think my brief belief that the homeowners must have done a little something to help the tree when I thought they’d removed a small section of the bench feels akin to what I see myself and other white people doing around the small things happening in our country to address racism. Specifically, as noted, I thought the homeowners did something to help the tree when in fact it was the tree that helped the tree by busting the bench. Likewise, my sense is that white people (myself included) want quite a lot of credit for the inroads we’re all starting to see in addressing systemic racism when really it’s the long-, long-term efforts of Black people that have driven these changes.
Additionally, when I did think the homeowners had done something to help the tree but then used the bench as a collecting space for a jumble of garden implements, it felt akin to how most white people have historically approached the reality of systemic racism by maybe doing a little something to ease the pressure on BIPOC people while the old system gets shored up around back, out of sight (e.g., voter ID laws, gerrymandering, differential policing and incarceration practices, etc.).
Finally, the various bogus reasons for leaving the bench in place noted above and my responses to them have parallels in the reasons those who continue to benefit from systemic racism (and sexism) tend to throw up to justify keeping the status quo intact. I won’t go through them as this letter is getting long, but suffice it to say that even though the wholesale changes needed to achieve antiracist, antisexist systems of government and commerce would be disruptive initially, we’d all benefit tremendously from breaking free of the constraining, crippling bands of white supremacy and the patriarchy.
BTW, it’s not lost on me that my neighbors won’t even remove the damn bench, which is a crazy easy thing to do, while taking down white supremacy and the patriarchy is an exponentially greater challenge, but I still think we’ve got to keep pushing for this for everyone’s sake.
May we be safe to dream big.
May we be willing to dismantle the systems that are suffocating us.
May we see that our strength and our health are all interdependent.
May we accept that change is hard even when it’s absolutely necessary.