Trees preach rootedness. Dancing sometimes; whispering often; but rootedness always.
Tonight the tree of my life will be growing some new roots. Trees grow out of thirst, reaching deep into clay and rock and loam to find hidden trails of water. I am thirsty, too, to continue the work and learning begun in me some years ago, as I began growing into anti-racist struggle and love.
Trees grow in particular places, and so do humans; I need a community particular to this place, its history and its future, to be able to continue to grow, to link branches with others in ways that shelter hope and foster change. I learned and grew in Texas; now I need and want to learn and grow in North Carolina.
And so, tonight.
I will gather with the leaders of a local organization called dRworks to begin an apprenticeship that may lead me to join their group of core trainers. I am happy for the possibilities, even as I know the work will be challenging to mind, body and soul.
There are a few of us entering into this apprenticeship; we are invited to bring something with us tonight that represents our journey so far. Because I have been blessed to journey with intentional, mindful people, I do indeed have something to share. My little tree, and the stories it tells.
I made it while helping to conduct a spiritual retreat for white anti-racists, in which we sought to learn about and heal from some of the ways racism has warped us.
Because some of the developers of the retreat were artists who think with their hands and their doing, the retreat includes work with clay, first to create a sculpture of what racism has done to us, and at retreat’s end, to reshape the clay in a way that represents hope and healing.
My first sculpture was a hand: fingers and thumb curled in, closed to anything that might penetrate my strength, tightly holding … nothing. An empty fist.
Perfectionist and forethought-obsessionist that I am, I knew right then, at the beginning of the workshop, what my closing sculpture would be. An open hand, of course. Still empty, but ready to receive: instruction, correction, advice, guidance, help … and ready to give, anything I could.
But then, a funny thing happened on the way to the final morning’s work. I sat, looking at my clay, still malleable after its weekend under a wet towel. I realized my easy answer was wrong, at least for me, in this moment. I took the clay up and let my hands begin to reshape it, without conscious direction from my mind. And saw fingers lengthen and thin, coming to resemble branches … the palm rolling into a trunk-like shape, bits of the trunk pinched down into root shapes.
A tree formed itself in my hands. The tree of my childhood, the one I wrote about in a recent blog entry. This sculpture marked the beginning of the time in which that hackberry was becoming an important, meaning-bearing memory. In that moment, at the close of the workshop, the tree symbolized hope for slow and steady growth toward strength for dismantling racism, the reach of branches and roots from a sturdy trunk.
In our first run of the retreat, the organizers took our clays, inviting a description of how we would like them glazed, and then had them fired. I asked brown for the trunk, with a splash of blue in the crotch of the tree, to represent the water I remembered pooling there: life held in the hand of the tree. When I received the sculpture in the mail some weeks later, I was stunned at its rough and amateurish beauty, and how much its tangibility meant to me.
Now I feel the little tree continuing to speak. When I made it, there was no way to indicate roots digging into earth; but that artistic limitation reveals a real truth: I am still struggling for roots. Those little stubs curling off the earth are trying to tell me something.
Maybe something about the struggle of white people, cut off from ethnic roots and cultural history, as many of us are.
I will take my tree with me, tonight, tell the part of its story that I know so far. And listen for the trickle of living water, far underground, that I know I need to survive … and thrive.