Three months ago, I packed up my 80-litre pack with my tent, sleeping bag, four t-shirts, two pairs of pants, two pairs of thermals, five pairs of underwear, my toothbrush, and six collections of poetry (only the essentials) and made the journey from San Diego, CA to the Unist’ot’en Camp on traditional Wet’suwet’en land in so-called British Columbia.
I fell in love with the Unist’ot’en Clan, the Camp, and their work. I decided it was time to dig in to defend the land and I’ve been in Canada working to support the Camp ever since. It took me 27 years, two degrees, two suicide attempts, a failed romantic relationship, and a deserted legal career to finally devote myself to radical resistance.
It is becoming increasingly clear that one of the many reasons the environmental movement is losing so bad is we suffer from a lack of committed individuals determined to resist for as long as it takes. I am committed to saving what’s left of our burning world because I am deeply in love.
I have finally arrived at this commitment and I hope you will, too. Here is the first in a series of pieces I am calling “Do-it-Yourself: Resistance.” These are my reflections on my path to resistance. Everyone’s path will be different, but people who embark on this path should know that the trail has already been blazed. They should know they will not have to walk the trail alone and in darkness. There’s a community of us and we are growing stronger.
The first step is falling in love.
I’m not talking about the feel good “all you need is love, brother” kind of love, either. I’m talking about the kind of love that places your heart into the embers of a fire where it can be warmed into recovery from a deep chill, but also where it can be scorched by vulnerability. It is this fear of vulnerability that prevents many from falling madly and deeply in love. Without this love, sustained resistance is impossible.
It is true that falling in love may make you vulnerable. Destruction rages on around us. When you’re in love and you shed the armor of denial, the truth might wound you. When you’re in love and you seek the filthy corners of this culture, the truth might stain you. When you’re in love and you dare to peer directly into the flames consuming life on this planet, the truth might burn you. With global temperature averages rising, clean water disappearing at astonishing rates, and human population growing exponentially, the planet’s ability to support life is in serious jeopardy. Every thing we love is under attack.
When you’re in love and your beloved is dying, how can you do anything but try to protect your beloved?
I must be honest: learning how to love dragged me into the deserts of severe depression. I think many are too scared of the truth and their own reactions to the truth to visit this desert. It can be dangerous. It is also the most rewarding experience imaginable.
Sometimes depression will not quit. Mine won’t. Sometimes your vulnerabilities expose you to perpetual dangers. Mine do.
It’s been 16 months since my first suicide attempt and just under a year since my second. Because depression is characterized as an illness I reasoned that I would eventually recover from my illness and live a healthy life. The darkness would simply be a tough time in my life that would fade in my memory as the course of my life pushed forward.
In many ways, this view was encouraged by my therapists and doctors. After my second suicide attempt, I was checked into an intensive Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) program. The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) describes the methodology of CBT in treating mental illness, “By exploring patterns of thinking that lead to self-destructive actions and the beliefs that direct these thoughts, people with mental illness can modify their patterns of thinking to improve coping.”
What were the “patterns of thinking” that lead me to “self-destructive actions?” As a public defender, I loved my clients so much the thought of them in jail compelled me to work harder and harder, longer and longer hours until I was exhausted. As a member of a natural community, I loved my land base so much that the continual degradation of Lake Michigan by industry sometimes caused me to weep.
And, “coping?” Through CBT I was taught that if I could just learn how to cope, I’d heal myself of depression. The popular proverb “If you can’t change the world, change yourself” comes to mind. I’ve always hated this expression for the way it encourages inaction. If the world doesn’t change, so much of what I love will be destroyed. Therapy based on changing individuals instead of our destructive culture puts the patient in the horrible position of either ignoring her love or changing what she’s in love with.
And what could be more depressing than that? In some senses, isn’t denying the love you feel a sort of death in itself?
To me, the only true therapy will come from stopping the dominant culture. We all know what the consequences what might be for seeking to change the world. Sister Dorothy Stang, a Roman Catholic nun standing up for indigenous peoples in Brazil, received perpetual death threats from logging companies before she was shot six times on her way to a community organizing meeting in Anapu, Brazil. Anna Mae Aquash – a Mi’kmaq activist with the American Indian movement – was found on the Pine Ridge Reservation with a bullet in the back of her head. The FBI slipped barbiturates into the Deputy Chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party Fred Hampton’s drink and sprayed his bedroom with automatic gun fire before firing two shots into his head at point blank range to make sure he was “good and dead, now.”
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to think Sister Stang, Anna Mae Aquash, or Fred Hampton developed mental illnesses through their work. I can even imagine a therapist asking them if their habit of demanding justice might be causing some of their anguish. But, Sister Stang, Anna Mae Aquash, and Fred Hamption never gave into the comforting acceptance encouraged by coping. They were in love with oppressed peoples. They wanted to change the world and they went about doing it.
I still feel suicidal sometimes. Death is a seductive whisper at the edge of my consciousness. I suffer from situational and spiritual vulnerabilities. I’m completely broke. I’m not sure where I’m going to live in three weeks. I’m not sure when my family is going to get sick of me being away and make their anxiety felt. I’m afraid that my new Canadian friends may discover the darkness my mind tends to and decide its too much work to be around me.
My heart turns the shade of gray that comes from profound weariness. I’m haunted by the sight of forests at Unist’ot’en Camp decimated by climate-change induced beetle infestations. The worst part is the way the once proud, tall, green pines are left standing when the beetles are done with them. The pines stand as towering grave-markers warning of the disaster this world faces if we cannot stop the destruction. My stomach fills with the gnawing acid of anxiety and anger as the radio lists the dead in Palestine. When the mangled bodies of children make it to my newsfeed I wonder how my stomach will keep the acid from burning a hole through my guts.
Besides being suicidal, you know what else I am?
Alive. I am, despite feeling all this, still alive.
Being alive lets me strip to my underwear and dip in the freezing Salish Sea. I step on sharp rocks watching crabs with delight. They play their own version of “King of the Hill” competing over pieces of seaweed on a submerged stone. As the green shadow of seaweed approaches their perch, crab siblings bump one another off the stone before snatching the seaweed in their pinchers and gobbling it down. I cut my heel on a rock and a gang of fish comes to investigate the blood. Their mouths are soft as they press against the cut. Before long the blood stops, and the fish settle in the warm spaces between my toes.
Being alive lets me enjoy the contrast of the hot sun on my back when I emerge from the cold sea. Being alive lets me taste the fresh ginger molasses cookies we brought to snack on. Being alive lets me hear the cries of wheeling sea gulls overhead.
Most importantly, being alive empowers me to be in love. I will not give into suicide because I’m in love with the Salish Sea, the crabs, the school of fish, the sun, the taste of ginger molasses cookies, and the cries of sea gulls on the beach.
Love will give you the strength to travel through the spiritual deserts of depression and even suicidal ideation. My continuing survival is proof of this. The continuing survival of countless others struggling with the emotional ailments facing us in these times is proof of this. Stand with us. Fall in love. Learn how to love at whatever cost. Love may make you vulnerable to feelings of despair. This is natural. It means you’re alive – and being alive is everything. It means you can resist and resistance gives your beloved a chance.