By Molly Murfee
“Society is like a stew. If you don't stir it up every once in a while
then a layer of scum floats to the top.”
― Edward Abbey
Recently, a student in my Nature Writing class asked me why I liked Edward Abbey, despite all of his imperfect personality traits he thought I most certainly didn’t agree with.
“I love his sass,” I replied without hesitation, “his edge.”
I have always admired Abbey’s “take no shit” attitude, his lay it on the line opinions, his absolute refusal to placate his words from fear of judgement, what someone else thinks, how he might be seen. His grit. His rawness. His honesty. Whole revolutions have been sparked by his words. He was imperfect, as we all are, yet the fallout was good.
Last night I had a dream about climate change. We were all choosing the tools, like warriors to the battlefield, we would use in the ensuing armageddon. The scene around us was one of fire and billows of thick black smoke tinged red. Metallic bones of industrialism gone awry lay strewn across the cracked earth, upended at sharp threatening angles.
“This one has more of a soft touch,” the female behind the table said as she pushed one of the objects toward me, fluffy as the underside of rabbits, leaving a smudged trail through the fallen grit.
“Or,” she counter-offered, ”you can bludgeon them over the head with this.”
“I’ll take both,” I said, paying her in something not resembling money, my fingerprints darkened as if smeared with either ink. Or oil.
There are times I lure, closer and closer, baiting with the glinting subtlety of golden ambrosia hiding under the hood of bluebells.
There are other times, when a heavy-handed wallop with something more akin to seasoned cast iron is in order.
Speaking truth to power, necessitated by the unfortunate density through which you must pound, often comes in the latter form.
Power wears a variety of guises, but the external give-away is the over-inflated, doughy-white and deadly bloat of greed and ego. On the inside, not even visible, is a teeny-tiny, barely-beating black heart. Only enough for meager-dripping sustenance. Not enough for really living.
Power tries to intimidate with sheer bulk, yell and pontificate until you give up, torn apart by either fear or exasperation. He extols facts on figures, throws apparitions appearing as obstacles, and stalwart iron-jaw opinions, attempting to block your path as if there were just one way forward. He will try to conquer with force, subjugate with status, threaten with deprivation.
He expects his hot air will bully you into the corner, afraid to speak up, believing his approval necessary to your own survival. He uses the mystique of the masses, creating a one-sided conversation where individuals slide into the gray ambiguity of the crowd, worried what others might think if they somehow heard your internal dissidence.
But you have to break away, stand tall. Square your shoulders and your hips. Steady your gaze. Draw roots from the ground and light from the sky and open your mouth.
This fall I put myself in a writer’s retreat, secluded in a cabin, held by a valley of mystics, surrounded by nothing but the twisted piñon pine outside, and thousands upon thousands of my words spread out on the bed, the floor, the desk, like a forest littered in layers of leaves.
I was there to work on my book, plotting stories and themes, finding connections, filling gaps. I thought often of those who would read my book. My parents. Those who live in the home of my birth. Those who are more reserved, or easily shocked, or see the world through a more conservative lens. Those who heft their economic weight like armor. I toyed with ideas and concepts, what I might be so bold to put into print, and whether I would care if I offended.
We are so often worried about the opinions of others – even when we feel compelled to speak our truth. We’re afraid of the shine of our voices rising above the din – what if we pushed away our friends? Affronted our boss? Threatened our “standing?” Revealed something of ourselves we aren’t quite sure we’re ready to wear on the outside for all to see.
But seeking approval is as fruitless as a dog chasing its tail, and certainly a lot less fun.
“Fuck it,” I said.
I tossed away the pencil with its apologetic eraser.
I pulled out the pen, filed to a point. Dipped in the indelible ink of passion, bravery. And resolve.
When author Terry Tempest Williams crossed the protest line at the nuclear Nevada Test Site and was arrested for trespassing, a frisking officer found a pen and pad of paper tucked inside her boot.
“Weapons,” she replied.
“How do I find my voice,” another student inquired of her writing.
“Speak it,” I said, “Over and over and over.”
Mahatma Gandhi called it satyagraha – truth force.
In the darkness it is difficult to find your way. I hear of much self-doubt and questioning. Depression. Anxiety. Fear. Our future has us trembling.
Political scientist Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, says this: “Historically, the most terrible things - war, genocide, and slavery - have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience.”
Light the torch of your voice. Let it blaze through the night. Set the stars and the moon on fire. Seize back your power from those who do not deserve to have it. Wrap it around you like the black folds of a rich and heavy cloak. Steep in the middle of this. Until it becomes the very skin through which you breathe.