Friday, July 17, 2020

The Bomb, Soap Flakes, and Resilience

Trinity Test - Alamogordo, NM - July 16, 1945
I have a memory from when I was ten years old and living in New Hampshire. That summer I had come back from my first summer camp experience having learned about the existence of nuclear weapons and what they were capable of doing. The movie, The Day After, came out not too long after that and we watched as a family.

In this memory I am laying in my bed in the dark waiting for sleep to come. I hear the sound of a plane flying overhead and I wonder if this is a missile on its way to destroy life as I know it. Ten-year-old me had no idea what a nuclear missile would sound like when it approached, or if I’d hear it at all, but in my mind they were like little rockets which were surely noisy.

Around this same time, I also had a very vivid dream in which nuclear war had happened. In the dream I lived in a town that wasn’t blown up but was preparing for the other aftereffects like radiation and nuclear winter. I was walking through town to warn people of what was coming. As I walked, I saw that people had large boxes of soap flakes that they were sprinkling on their roofs, on windowsills, in doorways, and in great circles around their house. They told me that the soap flakes emitted a vapor that hung in the air around the house creating a barrier to radiation.

I told them that it wouldn’t work, that it was just making them feel better. That the rain would come and wash the soap away and we’d have to do it all over again. I asked who would keep making all the soap now that the world was blown up, but even in dreams no one wanted to listen to a kid.

Somehow, I learned to live with the prospect nuclear annihilation. I didn’t fear nuclear weapons any less, and even now in writing this I am getting that familiar tightness in my belly. I didn’t hate their existence any less. But I was not paralyzed by that fear and hate. They existed, and short of finding some fantastical magic wand to wish them out of existence, they were not going to disappear anytime soon.

Preteen me simply did not have the power to remove them, stop them, or wish them out of existence.

But I didn’t go down the road of denial. I didn’t stop pretending they existed. I actually wrote my first letter of protest to President Reagan expressing what my feelings were about them. It was their existence that kick started my own activism.

I accepted their existence, but I didn’t accept that I couldn’t do anything about it. I also, somehow knew that the change I wanted to see might not happen in my lifetime. I wrote in my diary that I hoped one day kids like me would grow up in a very different world where they didn’t have to fear nuclear weapons. I even imagined my diary being discovered a hundred years in the future and people would marvel that such a world ever existed.

It was a surrender to the reality of the world on any given day, while working to make a different reality come to life, even though I’d not likely live to see that new reality. A mix of surrender, resilience, and humility…though I was not able to name those things then, the result was being able to live with the conflict of possible annihilation side by side with the hope for something different.

This is the mindset I want to actively cultivate now. I can’t make the horrors of the world go away. I still have not found that magic wand that will fix the world in an instant. I want to be able to hold both the knowledge that this is the state of the world in this moment, and not accept the state of things as immutable. And I need to do this while being aware that while I am doing this work in part for myself and the people around me, but it is far more for the people who are to come after.

I can’t get ride of this virus on my own, but I can work to create a culture that won’t be so negatively impacted as we have been. I can work to create a cultural mindset of collectiveness so that in the future, if this happens again the response will be one of support for one another and not the destructive denial we have all witnessed.

I can’t get rid of racism. I can’t change the history of our country. I can do the work to become anti-racist myself. I can work to lay the foundations for a new culture that not only finds racism unacceptable, but which actively works to rid itself of it.

I can’t undo the immense environmental harm we have done to the planet. I can work to create a relationship with the earth and nature, where I am a part of nature and not separate from them. I can create spaces for other people to find this connection and to begin to create a culture where the natural world is not seen as just another resource or capital to be exploited, but is a living system that has their own right to exist. One that human beings exist within, not outside of.

There is a metaphor we use often about how each generation stands on the shoulders of the generation before them. I’ve never liked that metaphor because standing on someone sounds so oppressive to me. Not to mention our ancestors haven’t done such a great job of things – building upon what they created just doesn’t seem wise. We need a new foundation to build on and a new space to build it. So that whoever comes along next has a place to start.

I still feel a lot of fear. I still carry worry. But if ten year old me can find a way to live within the opposition of a world that seems to dangerous to live in, while still finding some hope for what is to come, then 48 year old me ought to be able to do the same.

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