on Earth as hospital patient
What it means when we look the other way
In August of 2002, weeks after my beloved father’s car accident that would require my planning his funeral while he was still alive, removing him from life support, and losing many members of my extended family in the process, I went alone to visit the cemetery, and his grave site, which still looked freshly dug. It was the middle of the week, and while the cemetery was mostly empty, I arrived to find that someone had parked their Lincoln Town Car, which was left idling, about three feet from my father’s grave. The car had managed to rip up the grass, leaving deep tire tracks where we had gathered a few weeks earlier, as the cemetery workers lowered his casket into the ground.
I was furious.
No one was there to quiet me: not my wife, not my friends, not my cousins.
I looked around and found the people who left it there standing across the street, visiting another grave. Words were exchanged. The roads connecting the burial blocks were empty; they could have parked there. They could have parked anywhere. But they chose to park, essentially, on my father’s grave.
F**k you, they said. It’s just land.
I might have called them animals; I might have called them pigs. I might have said that they were pathetic excuses for human beings, who did not possess a shred of decency or respect. I might have told them they would rot in hell.
I might have said all of these things, but I don’t remember because I was seething with grief.
Eventually, they left, and for the first time in my life, I collapsed in a heap between the tire tracks they’d left and the fresh dirt covering my father’s grave, and I sobbed and wailed.
Everything in my life that I had known to be true and safe and real I think of in befores and afters: before he died, before that afternoon at the cemetery, and after it. In the year to follow — Jewish people traditionally observe a year of grief, the ending of which is marked with the unveiling of a headstone —- there is so much that I would learn, so much that I would come to understand about truth and affection what it means to be part of an extended tribe. But more than anything, I learned that people live in their own heads and their own hearts: it didn’t matter to the strangers in the cemetery that they were parked on my father’s grave because it wasn’t their father’s grave, and therefore, so what. It was just another piece of land to be ripped up out of convenience.
On April 22, 1970, I was seven years old. Mrs Kwartowitz, my first grade teacher, wore a brown suede poncho and hoop earrings big enough to shoot a basketball through. Her husband looked a lot like Allen Ginsberg, and made it his job to tie-dye the jeans of every one of his wife’s students who provided him with a pair. In preparation for the inaugural Earth Day celebration, which Mrs. Kwartowitz said was a very big deal, the entire first grade at P.S. 174 took up Save Mother Earth collections in little green UNESCO boxes; I have no recollection of where they were sent, only that mine was bursting at the seams like a small hippie Tzedekah box. Mrs. Watkins, a gorgeous Angela Davis-lookalike who taught the class next door to Mrs. Kwartowitz’s, showed us how to grow an avocado tree using an avocado pit and two toothpicks. But at home, my grandmother still used toxic Noxon on the silver; we drank Tab and Hawaiian Punch almost every day, and blithely tossed the empties out along with our voluminous industrial meat scraps down the incinerator shoot, which belched enormous black mushroom clouds of pollution into the sky above 98-05 67th Avenue. I begged my mother to get us some house plants — Mrs. Kwartowitz said they purified the air naturally — which she did: a Ficus tree that died when our Schnauzer repeatedly mistook it for a fire hydrant; and a Wandering Jew, which clung to life until the start of second grade, when my mother forgot to water it and it dried up like California.
What does not seem to be understood is this: that climate destruction does not choose its victims based on voting history or corporate payouts or alignments with fascist dictatorships. It will kill everyone, and it will do it quickly.
Fast forward half a century, and here we are:
The Clean Air Act —- codified at statute 42 USC chapter 85 —- was destroyed last week, by a supreme court seemingly hell bent on undoing every safety measure set in place to protect the health and welfare of the United States and all of its inhabitants: not just Democrats.
I can’t quite remember who first said that the planet is a living, breathing, sentient organism with a pulse and a temperature — like a hospital patient — and that if we essentially do to it what my Schnauzer did to my Ficus, it will die a protracted, painful death, which can be avoided (or at least slowed) by doing, among many, many others, two things: 1) Addressing in a serious way what appears to be the uniquely human propensity for entitlement on both the personal and immense public scale; and 2) Redirecting breathtakingly vast subsidies away from industrial monoculture and genetic modification geared to profit above all else, and pointing them instead toward food production and organic farming and permaculture practices that conserve resources, reduce water consumption, and ultimately, respect and heal the planet while feeding its inhabitants. And what does not seem to be understood is this: that climate destruction does not choose its victims based on voting history or corporate payouts or alignments with fascist dictatorships. It will kill everyone, and it will do it quickly.
This is an old, old story; point number 2 is self-evident. Point number 1 can best be described this way: Like the people who parked on my father’s grave, we believe ourselves to be an entitled animal. We feel a God-given right to manipulate everything and everyone around us, because we have thumbs and we have resources; if we don’t like it or it cramps our style or it doesn’t impact us directly, we change it or politicize it or kill it. Or, if we don’t want to discuss it at all, we simply pretend it doesn’t exist, like the elephant in the room: we’ll only talk about it if it serves our purpose, or if we want it for its tusks.
I turned fifty-nine yesterday, and in memory of my attempting to grow an avocado tree in a jar using toothpicks, I’m not feeling particularly sanguine about the health of the planet, or the inclination of its inhabitants to actually band together to do something about it. We’d rather argue and call each other names, which is often the most politically expedient thing to do.
My response has been more personal; I’ve taken to reading, listening to, and cooking from works that give me hope, energy, and no small amount of faith and stability when I find myself suffering from environmental ennui. To loosely paraphrase the great Terry Tempest Williams in her conversation with Krista Tippett, this is a time for people on opposite sides of the fence to sit down and figure out how to move forward together with the safety of the planet and our human community in mind.
There will always be the grave-parkers, the cruel, the bombastic, the entitled. It seems there are many more of them every day, and they are making gun laws and deciding what constitutes women’s rights of autonomy over their own bodies. But on this, July 4th, the day after Nazis marched through Boston’s Back Bay, it is impossible to feel anything but disgusted: disgusted at the bigots among us, at the entitled, at the marauders. In 1933, the world stood by and watched Europe implode. Woe to all of us who are doing the same today to the planet, to America, to each other.
Here are my inspirations — the things that are shoring me up at this crazy time.
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