Check out this post on Marlena Fiol’s blog
Apricot Irving, award-winning author of The Gospel of Trees
I am sitting on the steps of an 8’x11’ shed (though I prefer to call it a tiny house) in a green meadow, just down the hill from the house that I share with two teenage boys, my partner, a dog, a cat who likes to leave the livers of small dead rodents by the door for us, and six chickens. This tiny house is where I disappear to write. Birds are calling in the twilight and I can hear cars passing by on the road, their wheels splashing the puddles. Bees buzz in and out of the catnip and salvia by my feet and the first green tips of dahlias, given to me by a neighbor, are pushing up from the soil. At Marlena’s invitation, I am sitting with a blank piece of paper folded open on my knees, meditating on the question of belonging.
Today marks not only summer solstice, but also our 99th day of sheltering in place as a family. We have begun to make brief ventures out to meet with friends and family for carefully distanced/masked outdoor gatherings. We joined a protest led by visionary young Black Lives Matters activists, holding signs and marching in the rain, protected by sheriff officers who placed themselves between us and the pickup trucks waving confederate flags.
Sometimes the grief of this present moment feels almost unbearable—grief over lives lost, grief over violence that feels systemic, grief that my own white family, sheltered by privilege, has remained so safe, even during a pandemic, while others struggle even to breathe.
I was six years old when I moved to Haiti as a red-haired missionary’s daughter, and first began to awaken to the wounds of privilege (as the Irish writer Colum McCann so poignantly names this ache in his novel TransAtlantic). The profound inequities that existed between my family and many of our Haitian neighbors were startling and uncomfortable. My father was an agronomist, and had been invited by the Haitian Baptist Church to teach horticulture classes and help farmers plant trees, but the unearned deference with which we were treated put us in indisputable positions of power. Our privilege afforded us so many resources: a vehicle, a house with running water, American passports. The Gospel of Trees is my confession as a missionary’s daughter, but it also bears witness to the defiant, unconquerable spirit of Haiti, despite attempts by outsiders to remake Haiti in their own image. It has taken me most of my life to untangle that messy story—of how we intended to make the world a better place, and yet unwittingly caused harm as standard-bearers of white cultural superiority.
The history of the United States is no less jagged and uncomfortable. Last spring The Gospel of Trees won the Sarah Winnemucca Award for Creative Nonfiction at the Oregon Book Awards. I have been slowly reading Sarah Winnemucca’s searing, breathtaking memoir, published in 1883, Life among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims. To read a firsthand account by a Native woman describing the arrival of settler-colonists in a homeland that was claimed by the U.S. government as “the Oregon Territory” is a haunting reminder of the devastation that my ancestors wrought on indigenous and enslaved people throughout our nation’s history. Sometimes when I read a chapter of Sarah Winnemucca’s story alongside a romanticized pioneer homesteader narrative from the same time period, the distance between the two perspectives feels physically distressing.
It is deeply uncomfortable to face this sorrow, for I am a woman who has all her life benefited in seen and unseen ways from the structural inequities of a system built around white body supremacy. But I am reminded of the words of the writer and botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and author of Braiding Sweetgrass, who reminds us that “this is a time of learning and unlearning together.”
All my life, for as long as I can remember, I have wrestled with the question of belonging. Only lately have I begin to shift how I hear that question.
When I wake up in the loft of this tiny house, having spent the night alone in the meadow to write, I look out through narrow windows into the leaves of a chestnut tree. Through the window by my feet are a row of alders and cottonwoods and salmonberry bushes. When I look into the trees at the first light of morning, I know that I belong here, on this earth. As do we all.
It is a deep kinship to belong to the earth. When I climb a mountain at dusk with my children in Haiti, I know it to be true: I belong here, on this earth. As do we all. When I walk along the ocean or float a river in the company of osprey calling overhead, I know that I belong here, on this earth. As do we all.
Part of the grief, for me, in this present moment of learning and unlearning is the ever-growing realization of just how profoundly our current systems work to protect and privilege certain members of the human family (myself included), while excluding others. But we all belong here, on this earth. We are cared for and given life and breath by the same trees, the same rivers, the same sunlight.
History is so very messy. But on the other side of this awakening is an invitation to a deeper and wilder belonging—from which none of us can be excluded. I hope with all my heart that true and lasting change will come from this present unraveling. May we indeed be able to create together a world where every single one of us can breathe freely, without fear, where life is valued more deeply than profit, where there is room for all of us to rest and heal and flourish and use our collective creativity to its fullest potential.
We all belong here, on this earth that holds us. When I wake in this tiny house and look out at the chestnut tree, the first thing I want to say is thank you. Perhaps you, too, might try saying this sentence quietly under an open sky: I belong here, on this earth. Or say it wordlessly to strangers across a fixed a distance: You belong here, on this earth. As do we all.
May this moment indeed be a time of learning and unlearning what it is to belong to the human family, and to this earth that holds us.
For more from Apricot Irving, please visit apricot irving.com.
A Mennonite Missionary’s Daughter Finds Healing in Her Brokenness
This story differs from similar accounts of childhood domination or abuse because it tells the story of the author’s seemingly paradoxical responses to the powerful forces in my life, but doesn’t leave it at that. It sheds light on the social and religious dynamics underlying these responses, giving readers insights into and understanding of her otherwise incomprehensible choices, as she found my way back into loving relationships with her parents and the Mennonite community.