God Bless the Grass

God bless the truth that fights toward the sun
They roll there lies over it and think that it is done 

From the song God Bless the Grass by Malvina Reynolds

At the end of my dream-like cross-country bicycle tour at the end of July 2018, reality hit hard. My mother was diagnosed with lung cancer a few days before I finished the trip. Within a couple of weeks, it was evident that her condition was imminently terminal. I had to rush back to St Louis, Missouri just a few days after I got back home to Portland.

By the time I got to the hospital, Mom’s mind was mostly gone, apparently as a result of chemo therapy. It was intended to shrink a tumor that was constricting her airways such that she could hardly breathe. It got the tumor and apparently her frontal lobes as well. Her breathing improved but she was unable to speak to us. She could only moan and cry out in response to whatever torment she must have been going through. It seemed like there was recognition in her eyes when she would every now and then wake up to open them and maybe look around the room. But, her long rambling stories—my mom never lacked for something to say—spiced with jokes and sarcastic wisecracks, we would never hear again.

My siblings and I agreed that the best thing we could do at that point was to take Mom back to her home to die peacefully in the company of her large family: us kids, many grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and last and maybe not least, her beloved boxer named Thumper. Mom took her last breath on the Sunday afternoon of August 5 while we were all at her side.

Patricia Donley at work behind the bar.
Patricia Donley, née Emerson, September 17, 1936-August 5, 2018

I was so grateful for the time I spent with Mom during the six-day stop I made in St Louis during my trip across the country. Like many of my visits with her over the last several years, my mom was often a brain dump of family history and gossip. I listened to her for hours when she was not napping. We binge-watched Lost in Space and skipped between various crime shows and other programs that I would never seek on my own. She loved shows about zombies. I could barely stand to watch them. The sounds that the zombies make on The Walking Dead are so completely disgusting, like the pulling apart of velcro saturated with mucous, the tearing of flesh, and the breaking of bones all rolled into one. 

Processing the reality of my mother’s death, along with other circumstances in my life and the world-at-large, has rendered me almost mute all these months since. At times I have felt like curling up and spending days hiding under the covers. I did try that, but it got boring, not to mention hot. Also, there are quite a few things to take care of after a parent dies. Except for a couple of brief trips back to Portland, I spent all of autumn and winter in St Louis working with my family to get Mom’s house ready to sell. Attending to things related to that, trying to get things back on track with my work, finding a place to live, dealing with the added grief over what is unfolding before our eyes, have kept me occupied.

On top of everything else going on through the winter, I contracted a case of scabies. I think I got them somewhere toward the end of the bike tour. I stayed in a couple of bike hostels, used campground showers up and down the coast of Oregon, and lodged in a cheap motel, any one of which could have been where I picked them up.

Scabies is caused by microscopic mites that burrow under your skin in order to eat, drink and be merry, not to mention make baby scabies and mite poop. Naturally, this does quite a number on your skin. I had hives, rashes, and lesions over most parts of my body. It took several months to cure myself of them.

The current standard treatment regimen is 5% permethrin cream that you smear all over your body and leave on for 8-14 hours. Permethrin is an insecticide also used for mosquito control. And just the way agricultural pests have become resistant to pesticides, so have scabies mites become mostly resistant to permethrin. I finally eradicated them using 10% sulfur cream. The whole ordeal was quite revealing of various shortcomings in the US healthcare system. And while I had them, I suffered from almost constant and distracting itching. Often I did not get enough sleep because of it. Sometimes I would try to drink myself to sleep. Even that would not work. It was challenging to get anything accomplished.

A field of very green grass peppered with daffodils, on the horizon bare trees beginning to bud against a blue sky.
Daffodils in a field of grass at the New York-Pennsylvania border near the shore of Lake Erie. May 10, 2018.

I have been back in Portland since mid-March and have all of that behind me now. I’m still struggling with work and paying the bills but at least I can make some progress now. It feels really good to be here and to be reconnecting with my friends and community.  I hope that now I can catch up with this blog and tie up some loose ends around the bike trip. In many ways it feels as though I’ve just completed it a few months ago, which could be true if you consider the time back in Missouri as just one long detour.

And there is so much to tell, about my trip, about everything that has happened since I left for it, and about me. 

The message of Malvina Reynold’s song after which this post is titled, God Bless the Grass, is that truth, like an invasive grass, will find a way to sprout, and grow, and spread in due course. But, here we are living in a time in which people are willing to live and hide behind blatant and outrageous lies, at times cruel and indifferent to the suffering that they inflict. They try to call it “their truth” which is just as valid as any other truth or set of “alternative facts”. 

My thoughts about this are that one may believe what they will on your own time but for the purpose of making public policy, the faithful of all creeds must agree that there is a substantial reality existing outside of ourselves whose nature can be verified by evidence gained empirically and through observation, ideally using the scientific method. The scientific method may have its limitations but it is the only process through which people of varying faiths, religions, and philosophies can reasonably come to agreement about the nature of reality.

One of the most important aspects of the philosophy behind the scientific method is that it assumes that human judgement alone is faulty and biased. We tend to believe what we want to believe. In fact, what we believe is very much entangled with our identity, especially in relation to the groups to which we might belong. We will do everything we can to deny evidence that negates a cherished belief shared with the other members of our group. History provides us with many examples that demonstrate that to challenge what is accepted as truth to the group is to risk expulsion, if not imprisonment or death.

If we stand to gain from the continuation of a widely held belief, we are especially likely to ignore negating evidence. If we believe our horse won the race, we will accept the results of the photo finish that shows otherwise only after some moments of angry denial.

The situation in which we find ourselves now is that too many people, especially too many people with power and wealth, stand to lose financially if the evidence we have in front us regarding so many modern problems is acknowledged as the truth that it is. And so, they tell us lies in order to hide the profit-killing evidence.

The evidence before us tells us that we in developed countries must fundamentally change the way we live. This is especially true for the United States where, per capita, the negative consequences of our lifestyle are by far the worst in the world. This knowledge was mainstream in the 1970s when rising dependence on imported oil and OPEC embargoes caused us to have a national conversation about our profligate use of energy and other resources. Limits to Growth was then prominently displayed in bookstores.

My own recollection now of 1960s and 1970s is that the tumult through which we lived then was a manifestation of the cognitive dissonance that arose from the realizations that our way of life was based on militarism, injustice toward people of color, and unsustainable destruction of the environment. These are things that are contrary to our national ideals as conveyed in our founding documents, not to mention the teachings of the prophet whom most Americans profess to follow. That legislation was passed that started to address some of these injustices demonstrates that as a nation we were at that time beginning to muster the courage to face the truth and do something about it.

For anyone with a capacity for self-reflection, when confronted with the fact that some aspect of their lifestyle is not congruent with their own beliefs about how a moral person ideally conducts themselves in the world, there are two choices: change behavior or change belief. Changing our behavior takes effort. Changing belief can be as easy as installing a software update if it means we don’t need to do something difficult like walk more than the distance between the front door and the SUV in our driveway, or give up foie gras. Another important difference between them is that one is a meaningful acknowledgment of the truth and the other a denial of it.

Is the choice to change beliefs rather than behavior at least a partial explanation of climate deniers? If you are comfortable in the extravagant fossil fuel-intensive lifestyle experienced by most Americans, then believing climate change does not exist gets you off-the-hook. To change belief instead of behavior in response to cognitive dissonance is the essence of denial but it is often way easier, at least in the short term.

After the turbulent, truth-confronting, soul searching of the 60s and 70s, America seemed to collectively conclude that changing our behavior was too hard. For a while, during the 1970s Americans seemed willing to make personal sacrifices for the greater good. The speed limit was lowered to 55 MPH, it was fashionable to drive smaller cars, people started riding bicycles to school and work, and taking public transit.  At the end of that period in the late 1970s, our political discourse became poisoned by a toxic gas: the rise of reactionary talk show radio hosts, and the explosive growth of suburban megachurches, most of which can be described as belonging to the Christian Right.

Neither of these phenomena are an accident. Both were funded by wealthy interests that, starting in the 1950s, began to organize around efforts to roll back the New Deal. The beliefs they promoted provided a moral framework in which the wasteful North American lifestyle, secured by so much injustice, death and destruction, but highly profitable for big business, was not only justifiable but a God-given entitlement, allotted only to Americans because they are so special.

American exceptionalism goes back to the founding of the country. For legitimate reasons, it was on trial during the Viet Nam era. With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the verdict finally delivered was not guilty. Collectively Americans have lived in a bubble of lies since. A president such as Trump is the eventual logical result once your belief system becomes completely unmoored from concrete reality.

The unusually wet stormy weather that bogged down the planting season in the Midwestern US and the recent record breaking heatwave in Europe can both be tied to abnormal jet stream patterns related to the poles warming at a faster rate than the equator. In other words, they are aspects of human-caused climate disruption. Neither extended periods of intense rain nor those of intense heat is conducive to food production. Are we on the verge of experiencing the truth fighting for the sun in the form of rapidly rising food prices? Will there be food shortages? To what will that lead? Ignoring reality is inevitably costly. We will all pay the price regardless of what we believe now. Will that wake people up to the truth enough such that they will act in accordance with it, or will they bury their minds deeper in denialism?

I don’t know if it will be possible for all of humanity to come together in the unprecedented spirit of cooperation that will be required to stop what is not just climate disruption but an unraveling of the biosphere of which we are part and on which we ultimately depend. Assuming something can still be done, the mobilization of the US economy during World War II is often cited as an example of how we might come together in order to do it. That example begins to address the scale, even though climate disruption is much bigger. We also need everyone to be on the same side this time. That is looking less likely with the rise of rightwing, xenophobic, nationalism in the US and around the world.

What we know as the culture wars in the United States has its roots in the Viet Nam era when some citizens, mostly college students then, decided to embrace and act on the truth that we are not always the champions of the democracy and justice that are enshrined in the flowery words of our founding documents. The evidence could no longer be ignored: the brutal tragedy of the Viet Nam War, the demeaning poverty of inner cities, the racism, the destruction of the natural world, were all signals that we still had far to go in order to be congruent with our national ideals. But, to face truths that challenge how we live, how we view ourselves, our very identity, could be one of the most psychologically difficult things for humans to do. Such painful self-reflection requires courage that not all of us have. Given the nationalist propaganda showered upon the American population in the form of advertising, films, radio, and television during the Cold War era, it is not surprising that other citizens took exception to the criticism and chose to deny it all.

The flames of the culture war have been fueled and fanned by the wealthy interests who stand to lose money and power if the reforms we so badly need were to be implemented. By doing so,  they have stopped progress toward a just society in the United States almost dead in its tracks, and in many cases have reversed it. The culture war is now being exported to the rest of the world, most tragically to the European Union. Though unfortunately corrupted by the same neoliberal policies that are killing us here in the US, the EU is at least an example of former enemies cooperating for the mutual greater good of their citizens. There is much less reason for hope should it disintegrate.

As individuals still advocating for both evidence-driven behavior and politics, all we can do is our best to adhere to what we understand to be truth. That requires changing behavior as that understanding changes with new information. It is hard. We can never do it perfectly, but doing our very best to try is ultimately necessary for survival. And to delay the acknowledgment of truth only increases the intensity of the hell we pay when one day it comes to knock down our door.

Being informed and active around environmental matters for many years, I have strived for authenticity in the spirit of being the change I wish to see in the world. I gave up owning a personal automobile almost twenty years ago. I rarely drive a car. I’ve given up flying because it is one of the biggest factors in one’s individual impact on the environment. And, I’ve stayed active in movements seeking to change the system, because all of our individual actions won’t mean a thing if we don’t do that. I eat a vegetarian diet that leans vegan. I’ve had to be flexible now and then in various situations like family emergencies and social settings.  But, I strive and keep on trying because these are the things we would all be doing if we were really serious, and not telling lies to ourselves, about the emergency before us. I don’t think I am holier than thou. It’s just a practical matter to me: survival.

The concrete gets tired of what it has to do. It breaks and it buckles and the grass grows through.

And though I have done everything I can to appear authentic relative to my words and stated beliefs, I have not been so. I have struggled with telling the truth about my sexuality and gender expression my entire adult life. I suppose I have enough reasons and excuses for lying about it for so long. Coming of age in the conservative Catholic, sexually repressive, homophobic, environment that was suburban St Louis, Missouri in the early 70s did not provide even the vocabulary that would have helped me understand the nascent fantasies I began to have in my teenage years. Having been socialized as a straight male, I could do nothing but feel intense guilt about feelings for which I knew I would be rejected and ridiculed if I told the truth. I did grow up with some expectation of how my life would go and this did not fit the picture. That part of me that did not fit wanted something completely different. Queue the Monty Python theme.

The fact that I was emotionally attracted to women (but ignore that girl behind the curtain who wants to take control of the brain, put on a pretty dress and date men) meant I went down the traditional track of monogamous heterosexual relationships that always ended. My significant long-term relationships all eventually went caput. I like to think I could have avoided causing so much pain for other people had I been somehow able to come to terms about the truth of myself back in my early twenties, or even sometime sooner than the age of sixty-three. One perhaps offsetting benefit is that I have three beautiful children who have all grown up to be loving and caring human beings.

I’ve been coming out to friends and family about who I really am for over a year now. I am transfeminine. It was several years ago when I finally accepted it internally to the point where at least I didn’t feel guilty that that is what I am. After that, I only felt bad about lying about it to other people. But, it all seemed so complicated to untangle myself from all of the male roles which seemed baked for decades into my identity. Did I have some responsibility to keep playing the part, even though it was a lie? The other thing I had to accept about myself was that I am very fearful of losing respect of people around me. I want desperately to be liked. I am certainly a walking example of how the need for group identity and belonging can make one deny the truth.

Thankfully, I was able to tell my mom last June while I stayed with her in St Louis. Since Mom’s death last August, at least I have felt that my grief has not been intensified by the regret of unfinished business, or something said or unsaid.

A couple of months ago I began to officially transition. I now present myself as a woman to the world, though I am sure most of the time I am perceived as a trans-woman, or just a man in women’s clothes—a Monty Python script walking down the street. Though I know I will have to endure gawking, disapproving glares, joking remarks, ridicule, and even perhaps sticks and stones from the deluded and hateful dominant culture, I feel better about myself than I ever have.  To freely express myself by appearing as who I feel that I am inside, I have felt like a bird let out of a cage, flying for the first time. And so, I am willing to endure it all. And why the hell should I value the opinions of the cowardly who would deny the truth and sacrifice the Earth for the sake of their own comfort anyway?

God bless the grass.