Masks

Written by Jessica Tunis

As soon as I can, I tear off the mask and gulp in the fresh air. Greedily, like a swimmer who has been underwater too long. The fresh air! The sweet fresh air. Not the hot, stifling air from beneath the mask, but the clear air of the world, alive with birdsong and oxygen. How it flows so easily in and out of the lungs, unencumbered. How it tastes of thoughtless freedom. I drink it down, thirsty for more.

I wrote that brief paragraph a few weeks ago, envisioning it as a beginning to a piece in which I also celebrated soil and water, and sunlight, all the elements that we rely on to live, to garden, to thrive. I had to delete all the rest. Because when I come back to these words now, others also ring in my head.

“I can’t breathe.”
“I can’t breathe.”
“I can’t breathe.”

Everything I wrote after that, praise for the way water seeps from the ground, the way sun feels on the skin, all of it feels hollow in the wake of the recent violent death of yet another unarmed black man. His name is George Floyd. He is the latest to be publicly slain, and the outcry is rising to a fevered pitch in a country already ravaged by Coronavirus, economic turmoil, and political instability.

This is not a space for political activism, per se. While personal biases and politics might be guessed at from unsubtle cues, it has always been a strength of this community that it has welcomed and encompassed diverse and differing viewpoints. So it might seem strange, in a homesteading journal, to be focussing on events that are happening in cities far away from our rural enclave. But it is in environments just such as these that the disease of racism can spread. We are not a particularly diverse community, out here in the redwoods. But it is incumbent upon us all not to let that shortage of diversity color our perceptions. What happens in cities near and far is part of the American culture, to which we also belong. As we are reminded over and over these days, we are all in it together. All of us. That means that even though we are somewhat insulated from events like the riots that are now rocking Minneapolis and other cities, we are still affected by them. And when I say “we”, I don’t mean the store, but our entire community. This is a particularly vulnerable time for all of us, but it is most especially so for people of color. Tensions are high, and tempers are short. Everyone is sick of wearing masks, and not hugging their friends, and being able to shop and dine out with impunity. Imagine, if it is not your reality already, what it must feel like to add yet another layer of worry to an already trying time. Imagine what it must feel like, to see people who look like you dying at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve. Calling for their mother with their last breath on this earth. Or at the hands of the white men who chased down and murdered Ahmaud Arbery. Imagine not being able to safely go birdwatching, or jogging, or shopping, with that added level of mortal danger. To be targeted, not because of who you are, but what you look like.

I can’t breathe, just thinking about it.

We are all thirsty for oxygen, in these days when we spend so much time breathing in our own warm carbon exhalations. But even in these times of stress and anxious waiting, let us not slip into complacency. Let us keep our eyes fixed on all the places that need attention, and not look away, just because we are tired, or it happened somewhere else, or it’s not really “our issue”. If we are to get through this with our ideals and our aspirations for a better world intact, we have to do it together. All together.

Let us weave a vision to reach for. Let it take root like a seed that carries within it everything it needs to become true. Each of us with our own thread, intertwined with all the others. There is a garden where we can all gather together, on a round planet that circles a star. There are people and flowers of every color, and animals and vegetables and fruits, and tables laden with the harvest, enough to feed the hungry. There is sunlight, and clean water, and fresh sweet air. We breathe it in and savor it, alive with birdsong and oxygen, and the peace that comes not from building walls, but from creating justice on this earth.

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