My friends tell me that we are living in scary times. Many of them are having difficulty sleeping. The reasons for their fright are real: Around the nation, attacks on minorities and other hate crimes are on the rise. In Washington, D.C., people who have proven themselves to be without conscience will soon be assuming seats of power. A great number of Americans appear to be in the grips of mass delusion.
But fear is not the answer. Fear shoots up the blood pressure. It leads you to lose your cool and your power of discernment. It can introduce a state of paralysis or panic-induced violence. Fear plays into Trump’s hands. If you are petrified, or sputtering in rage, you won’t be so good at fighting the forces unleashed in his name. Your resistance will be far more effective if you are mobile and flexible. Rather than stoke fear, let us stoke courage.
A simple way to do this is to be thoughtful about language. Compare your body’s responses to the directives: “Be frightened” and “Be wary.” Consider the effect of talking about “a dangerous situation” rather than a “scary” one. Use words that bring on alertness, nimbleness, calmness and awareness.
And while you’re at it, don’t overdose on speculative news. Be aware of current events, but also be aware of the plants growing around you, the song the child beside you is singing, the taste of an apple. Having been a student of history, I usually balance today’s political happenings with those of the past. Alas, the research I’m doing these days is for a novel that takes place in 1938 Vienna, so my historical reading is looking all too contemporary. Still, it is interesting to consider the way history spirals around, revisiting itself in different guises. The long view encourages me. The knowledge that people have been in similarly dark situations before, as they will again. We are not alone. We are part of a struggle that’s been going on for a very long time.
Right after the election, my friend Annie suggested a bunch of us bolster ourselves with a tattoo. When I was eighteen, I had a Hopi symbol of the sun tattooed on my arm, so as to carry a bit of the desert with me when I was surrounded by the concrete of New York City. I love that tattoo and had not, until Annie made her suggestion, seen the need for another. But as soon as she planted the idea in my head, I wanted a tree. I spent the next couple of weeks remembering the various trees that had gotten me through difficult times in my life, and drew an amalgam of them. Here it is, freshly rising from my flesh:
I love trees for their vibe, their beauty, their endurance, their mobility even as they are rooted to the ground. Jason, who likes to keep up on science news, told me that the genome of a gingko tree is three times the size of the genome of a human being. This is probably because they’ve been around so long, adapting to wildly different climates and conditions. Scientists think that they first sprung up in the Permian Age, back when the continents were one big landmass, and crested dinosaurs left footprints in the mud. Now they spring from neat rectangles of dirt, geometric breaks in the sidewalk of my Brooklyn block. In the spring, their fruit drops to the pavement, emitting a smell of sweat and decay. Soon after, stick thin old ladies appear. Speaking a language that I do not understand, they squat down and scoop the berries into plastic bags, harvesting them.
Jason told me that the adaptability of the gingko trees enabled them to withstand the atomic bomb. Checking up on this, I learned that not only gingkos, but 32 other species lived through the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 170 individual trees, among them oleander, eucalyptus, chinaberry, black locust, weeping willow, fig tree, and Japanese black pine managed to keep growing through all that destruction. The Japanese named these trees the hibakujumoku, translated as “survivor trees” or “a-bombed trees.” Each one is marked with a plaque that tells visitors how far they were from the explosion. The tree closest to the Hiroshima blast was a weeping willow, which stood 370 meters from the hypocenter. Its trunk was destroyed, but its roots survived, from which new buds sprouted.