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Sensing Danger Before It’s Visibly Apparent (And Other Useful Lessons In A World Rife With Destruction)

Modified from flickr / John Eisenschenk

“Can you remember things from when you were a baby?” My fourteen-year-old nephew asks me, as we wind through the turmeric-colored hills of late summer Northern California.

“I do, but I’d rather hear about what you remember,” I said, turning down the heady beats of the Wu-Tang Clan I’d been introducing him to. (“Auntie! he’d exclaimed, “This is so much better than Drake!”)

Folded up beside me like a blue heron, or an oil rig, my nephew is a coltish six feet tall, and nearly all legs; he took a long time to respond.

“I remember the dinosaur stickers on my bed,” he finally said, softly. When I followed his gaze out the window, I saw the cranes of the Oakland Port, looking themselves like ancient, industrial beasts. I saw the externalized thought, the making-adult of a childhood memory, the attempt to make contact. He startled me by continuing, “—before I knew they were dinosaurs. When you’re that little, you have no memory of learning a thing. You just know it, and that’s it.”

Long after I dropped him off, his revelation boomed inside me.  

You have no memory of learning a thing. You just know it, and that’s it.

I see evidence of this everywhere: sensing danger before it’s visibly apparent, reading a room, attraction (to another body, to an object that shines just right). Those of us who are able-bodied walk around without really thinking about walking around. We’re repositories of composite knowledge, learned by rote because of necessity or habit, much of which sits below, glacially submerged.

Where, I marveled, did he learn that?

My nephew was talking about linguistics, mostly, and motor skills. He was talking about world-building concepts, like space and time. Things you learn through a kind of osmosis. However, my own first responses—how to sense danger, how to read a room, how to tell if I’m attracted to someone or something or not (and immediately after, if I think the attraction is a good idea or a potentially harmful one)—shows a lot about me as a person. That I learned at a young age how to intuit threat, and how to defuse, defend, or otherwise navigate it.

Today I woke up and I noticed this: a tomato plant in my backyard has grown around a brick.

As the tomatoes start showing their bashful faces, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this muscle memory. A few weeks ago, someone threw a brick through my front window in Oakland. Yesterday, a man made a gun of his hands and pretended to shoot me with it. Down the street, MacArthur Bart is still sewed up with yellow police tape, and Nia Wilson has officially been gone for a week. Down the other side of the street, tent cities bloom and die, bloom and die. Civilians and cops circle one another warily.

Humans are repositories of composite knowledge, learned by rote because of necessity or habit, much of which sits below, glacially submerged. Click To Tweet

And it’s the twentieth anniversary of the release of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which reminds us that this systemic racism, this cyclical grief, is not even remotely new.

Even if we didn’t cognitively know that to be true, we feel it. The muscle memory of collective trauma prompts us to slide into unconscious action and movement during times like these. We check in with each other more. We shut down ICE facilities. We write, we draw, we archive, we connect.

“There are many ways to show up for a revolution,” my very wise friend Ste once told me. “Jesus and Gloria Anzaldua feed people. Holding a sign is just one way.”

Do you ever feel uncomfortable with how comfortable we can go from zero to 60, and quickly? As if our lives depended upon it (they do). This response is an infinitely helpful one, of course, but it implies a world that is rife with disaster and destruction, one in which an emergency kit must always be at the ready.

I recognize that not everyone feels this way. In fact, it seems to me that the majority of the burden of showing up, educating, and emotional labor falls on marginalized communities, even within liberal and artistic spaces. I understand that the disenfranchised have a more robust understanding of how to handle crisis—for obvious reasons—but our collective inability to have difficult conversations and engage in difficult labor is what landed us with the president and administration we have now.

#MeToo is perhaps a relevant and ongoing example I can point to. While I feel grateful and slain by those in my community (and those in positions of power outside my community) who came forward and told their own harrowing stories, a little part of myself felt distraught: why is it the responsibility of victims to shock the world into caring? Why doesn’t the world just believe people when they claim they’ve been abused? And, even more upsetting, why hasn’t the movement gone farther? What will it take to end rape culture in our country?

Still, some changes are palpable. Holding people publicly accountable is pretty effective. As I enter into the film and television industry—I’m currently taking my first screenwriting course—I can detect the ways in which Hollywood is trying to change its tune.

Nia Wilson’s killer has been apprehended, and folks are still unsure if it was racially motivated, and doesn’t that say something about the ways in which the baseline holds up? That white men can still get away with being assumed not racist until proven otherwise, even when they kill people of color in front of dozens of onlookers?

I feel proud of Oakland for showing up. I also feel sad for Oakland.

I feel proud because I love a city that knows how to handle itself with aplomb in a crisis. I feel sad because the hard truth is that the marginalized and traumatized are always taxed and overburdened with responding—with grace and empathy—to ride or die situations. Individually, and systemically.

We’re seeing an appalling display of what unchecked privilege and power can do. Everyday, hundreds of examples: a man going on a spree with a knife on public transportation, our president taunting entire nations over Twitter, Oakland cops taking advantage of underage women.

For all our unconscious super power—for all our psychological spidey-sense of self-protection against impending violence—how do we know when we are in a Reckoning? I’m so ready for the meek to inherit the Earth. I’m so ready for those who instinctively have a realistic understanding of the danger and beauty and tenuousness and finiteness of our world to have some power in deciding how to run it.

My nephew is right, but is also too young (I think, but what do I know?) to fully understand the additional layer of this fraught knowledge, the one that comes with time and experience and, unfortunately, getting roughed up a bit: the things we have no memory of learning as individuals, the things we hold to be the dearest of knowledge—these are very, very different than the things we collectively know as a society.

The overlap in the Venn diagram of understanding what is wrong with the world on an individual versus a systemic level—well. It’s tiny. As a society we don’t share that baseline. And that’s terrifying.

Walking through the streets of my city and seeing it fall all around me really does make me feel like my basement should be stocked with water and canned beans. And it is (thanks to my Virgo sweetheart).

But I’m mostly stocked up with myself: my muscle memory of how to move in a world that feels like a war-zone. I’m stocked up with my phone tree, my books, my plants that grow around evidence of industrialization. I’m stocked up with my capacity for listening, with my compassion, with my chosen family. I’m stocked up with you.

Keep fighting. I love you.