Sunday, August 25, 2019

place of origin


The squash was started in the field from seed. They were planted too close so my task is to thin out the healthy ones and transplant them to where seeds didn’t germinate. Before moving the seedlings, I make new holes, new homes, in the bare patches.

This endeavor is best undertaken between rains so the ground is soft both for removal and replanting. When I dig up the plant, I scoop up a large amount of soil around the roots. I want as much of this seedling’s home to go with it as possible. I want the seedling to be accompanied by everything it knew from birth; the microclimate that suckled it, the insects that provided community and the loam that originally clothed it.

I am uprooting a living being.

Sometimes though, when I insert my trowel, no matter how gently, the soil falls away and I inadvertently expose roots. I cradle the plant with its tiny pale tendrils now exposed to the open air and rush to the pre-dug holes. I ease the seedling in and construct a donut shaped ridge around it. I do this so that there will be a reservoir of water to fortify the displaced roots, to facilitate growth, particularly after dislocation.

Can one expect growth after dislocation, or is that simply what recovery and acclimation look like? What softens ground for transplanting people? What reservoir fortifies our upheaval?

Maybe  I am infusing this process with too much anthropomorphism. Maybe I am investing too much of my story onto a thing that is doing its own thing, whose existence is other than my own, sentient in ways I am not. But I cannot resist the metaphor; as a child immigrant, the weight of this process is not lost on me. Was such care taken for my relocation?

Indeed after learning that transplant shock is real and impacts all plants regardless of size—even trees, I do this step, the donut reservoir, almost like a religious ritual. I want to lessen the shock and ease the assimilation of this being into its new habitat, even if it happens to be only a few feet away.

What is the measure of a few feet if your roots are no bigger than wisps of hair?

Each hole I’ve made is about the same size, all in rows spaced appropriately to the expected growth of squash. The uniformity we apply and therefore expect from living things disturbs me. The plant is wilted when I place it in its new home. It will be wilted for days, maybe even lose a few leaves or limbs; collateral damage for the promised abundance.

As I take this picture, I cannot help but feel my FOB self in middle school. I know everyone feels FOB in middle school in their own way, since we all fall short of the narrow dictates of uniformity. But I often felt like that wilty plant next to kids born and bred here. They, never having left their home soil, germinated, rooted and flourished in one biosphere since conception. Their families maybe even reseeded in the same place for generations. How this grows a person is unfathomable to me. Just as being uprooted from elsewhere then transplanted here is unimaginable to those who haven’t experienced that.

Unless the transplant shock is too much and the plants wither, most will eventually recover. The roots will take hold, wilted stalks will swell, pulse with life and the seedlings will flourish. If I retake this picture, the squash previously contrasted would be undistinguishable from its neighbors. This is the objective of assimilation, of transplanting: to thrive in the prescribed, predetermined way of those around you in this new place. Whatever transplant shock experienced is buried in the soil that becomes home. Does the plant miss its place of origin?

This is where the metaphor dissolves, the squash and I diverge.

Does the transplant recognize itself as dissimilar from those grown in native soil or feel this lyric from Dire Straits, ‘you've been in the sun and I've been in the rain. And you're so far away from me?’ I have always known myself as far away from those around me.

The Egyptian loam from whence I came coats me still. It has not disintegrated into the soil of middle America I was raised in. It is not interred in a Pharonic souvenir I can reference as heritage. It is wish and fable, filtered by longing, triggered by wisps of memory. Early morning cool air unfurling with the scent of diesel, the rising sun opaque with smog. It is fava beans in pita with homemade hummus layered with lemon and parsley. It is a donkey in the rubble next to the five star hotel. It is the haphazard choreography of honking vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists, hawking vendors leading animal drawn carts toppling with fresh vegetables. What I miss about Cairo is distant and intimate in equal measure. I am drawn to what is no longer my home yet still defines itself as such somehow.

This is what home feels like for a transplant.

Monday, August 12, 2019

be the death*


Did you know studies show sugar to be as physiologically addicting as heroin, facts the sugar lobby works to discredit and refute?

Over the last few years I have watched my father’s health decline because of diabetes. Even as it ravages him, his lifelong fondness for sweets has gradually begun to take a more dominant role. In fact, he refuses to reckon with his complicity, despite a subpar quality of life and a harrowing hospitalization. He also cannot see how his behavior burdens those closest to him. Our quality of life is compromised; our vitality siphoned into his caretaking.

The youngest of four, my father grew up poor in rural Egypt. His mother died when he was six months old and he grew up with a harsh father who burdened him with too much responsibility at a tender age since he was the only  male offspring. When he shares childhood stories they are often unimaginably sad. Once, when he was eight, he and a sister contemplated suicide but were terrified they’d get beaten if they failed, go to hell if they succeeded.

I have little insight into my father’s capacity for healing, his capacity for joy. I just know that anxiety and depression companion him. Nevertheless, my father worked hard, was dutiful his entire life, was deeply religious and by external indices, was successful. He had a long career as a psychiatrist. He has lifelong friends, financial security, a devoted wife. And yet he has become reclusive, immobile and intransigent, undermining efforts toward rehabilitating his health.

For a long time, l felt betrayed by his deterioration. He has medical, psychological and spiritual tools. Why can’t he make better choices? What is the use of all his achievements, his knowledge, if he’s going to slowly kill himself? Did he emigrate to America, overcome poverty, escape persecution, to die this way?  

I began researching substance abuse disorders because I needed to learn why one would deliberately endanger one’s life. I also needed to figure out how to be more generous emotionally with my father. I had spent a lot of time being impatient and hostile because I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t fix himself. I’m learning addiction is compulsive, has tunnel vision and is sabotaging. My dad, in a sense, isn’t in control so can’t fix himself.  

Learning about addiction helps me understand our climate crisis inaction. We are unable to rally the individual, social, institutional, political, national and international will to tackle our extinction because we have a substance use disorder.

Consider details about late stage addiction:

A substance abuse disorder is a chronic disease, meaning that it is slow to develop and of a long duration.
Over decades and decades, a long duration, we have systematically, increasingly made oil, natural gas and coal, the web of our lives. Could we live, move and have our being without these substances?
I’m writing this on a laptop in an air-conditioned room and chances are you’re reading it on a computer in another air-conditioned room somewhere. Last night I met friends for dinner. Fossil fuels got me, and probably everyone else, there. Every single item in the restaurant including the food and drink was grown, crafted, fished, farmed, extracted, manufactured, packaged etc, somewhere distant, shipped to the restaurant, prepared, consumed and then remains shipped away to be discarded. Every part of our dinner, even what we discussed- books, music, paint choices for a bedroom and the day’s errands-couldn’t exist without oil, coal and natural gas.

You know you’re living with a substance abuse disorder when you meet the following criteria:

  ·     ‘cannot face life’ without

Everything that shaped and shapes my identity: immigration, the arts, food, clothes, education, recreation, on and on emanate from oil, coal and natural gas. Who would anyone of us be without them? What’s more, everything I want to do in the future orbits around their use. The trips I long to take. The books I aspire to write and read. The home renovations I dream about. The subjects I want to study.
·       cannot control use

In 2013, I wrote about the Maldives sinking because of climate change inaction. Since then, our global situation has worsened, despite increased international awareness:

*Then, environmental refugees were predicted to number 50 million by 2050. Now it’s estimated to be one billion. 
*In 2013, we hit World Overshoot Day on August 20; 2019, we blew our planetary budget almost a full month earlier on July 29
*Six years ago, the CO2 level was 392 ppm but now we’re over 400 ppm. 
*Stateside, there was no mention of climate change in the 2012 political debates, less than six minutes in 2016 and in the recent 2019 Democratic debates, climate change was addressed for a mere 15 minutes.
*And, despite an uptick in their frequency and
catastrophic impact, news outlets don’t connect these unnatural weather events to climate change. 


·       continue to use despite the harm that comes to health and life

How has knowing we’re in the sixth great mass extinction changed our behavior? Even when the thing we rely on is destroying us, we won’t give it up. We will go to drastic lengths to access it, heedless of wreckage, endangering ourselves and sacrificing others because we literally cannot imagine how to function without. On this continent, consider tar sands extraction and mountain top removal and contentious pipelines.

·       lie about your use, especially about how much you are using

There are monied machinations sowing denial while wreaking divisive havoc worldwide to protect political and financial interests. There is established infrastructure to keep us addicted via institutions, governments and corporations, not unlike the tobacco and sugar industries.

This is where the addiction lens helps.

Heretofore we have placed our hopes and energies for fixes on science and technology. It is similar to watching my family of physicians provide a regiment of prescriptions, admonitions and round the clock care to my diabetic father, he himself a doctor. It is to no avail. He will sneak sugar and is unmoved regarding helping himself because he is too entrenched.
As with my father, I struggle with impatience and hostility about climate change inaction (Maybe I’m just a hostile impatient person.). If we personally continue using fossil fuels knowing their impact, isn’t that a form of lying? Isn’t that denial? Aren’t we just as bad as those people/politicians we rail against?

I do not know when my father began using. I can picture him a child in a dusty village, under his bed-refuge during his father's rages, slowly untwisting the crinkly bright plastic encasing a bon bon to anticipate then savor the strawberry flavor. Or maybe he quickly tore it open, in eagerness. Perhaps it was given as a reward for a job well done. Perhaps for the brief moments it dissolved on his tongue, it dissolved his worry, made his fears bearable. Maybe his oldest sister gave him dates each time he returned from running errands for her. Maybe dates, his go-to these days, bridges the distance over the ocean to his childhood home, over the almost half century since emigrating, over her death. When I think about how sweets to a young boy may have helped him endure or self soothe, I can relate to my father with compassion and patience. What began for him unconsciously so long ago, what helped him all this while, how can he possibly let go of it? Who would he be without it, especially now, in his eighties?

When I view our climate change inaction through this lens, it helps me have compassion and patience for us humans. Think about it. Nearly eight billion of us, worldwide, are born into fossil fuel addiction, birthing addicted children, nursing them literally from a fossil carbon product, and figuratively nursing fossil-fueled dreams for their future. 

Good grief, earlier this summer I, along with others from around the world, attended an environmental writers conference where we lamented our planetary doom. Yet most of us flew there. It is literally unimaginable to conceive of fossil fuels sobriety because they are too entrenched in our lives.

How can we define ourselves, imagine ourselves, separate from fossil fuels? Would it help to view climate change inaction, our entrenchment, through the lens of addiction? Would it help us cultivate compassion and patience for ourselves and each other? What if we began with acknowledgment and yes, maybe even gratitude, for how fossil carbon helped us become who we are today? Maybe the letting go can start there.

*from Heroin by Velvet Underground