This essay was written on August 25th, 2020
The house shakes as a huge truck carrying parts and raw materials to an auto plant goes by. My whole body is aching with grief at the passing of my dog friend of 12 years, Banjo.
Banjo and I had a really special relationship—we both loved exploring and gave each other a sense of freedom and security. We were each other’s trespassing companions. I knew if I paid attention to her when we were exploring urban and suburban wilds, I would be safe, because she was so attentive to her surroundings, looking and listening, scanning the place for movement, sound and remarkable smells. She seemed to have a similar understanding with me—I would let her off-leash and she wouldn’t wander too far and would come running when I called. As her senses dulled, I noticed she would get anxious when she couldn’t easily see me, scanning the landscape more frantically- looking for me- her familiar. I think we felt a profound love and responsibility for one another. Even as she became ill quite quickly, she comforted me as I worried.
On one of our last walks together, I thought about all the inconclusive news from veterinarians. I had become convinced that Banjo had lead poisoning. I thought about all the places I took her, the train tracks, the weedy industrial ruins, the urban creeks— even my own backyard whose topsoil appears to be foundry waste in some spots. My heart ached at the thought of the poison lurking in nearby places we explored as a potential agent in her death. I felt some guilt, but much bigger than that was the anger. The urban wilds that we loved were poisoned, they were deemed too ordinary and not worthy of regard— the residential taxes here in South Warren were too low– the population too poor. So the state sanctioned poisoning of the beautiful world we live in was brushed off as the price we pay for jobs and “development”. Many of the people who live here are probably too tired from working and raising their kids to think anything of it— they have more immediate concerns about making ends meet. Some may not even notice, while others tacitly accept that, that’s just the way this shit world is. Under a social Darwinist trance that pervades an increasingly secular capitalist culture— some may even fight to protect the economic arrangement that poisons them.
I started processing Banjo’s death more than a year ago. I think my husband thought it was pretty morbid, but sometimes at night we would cuddle with her in the middle of the bed and I would talk through how I’d like to manage her last affairs on this plane. I think this was an act of psychological preparation. I wanted to make sure I made choices based on what was best for her- not based on what I wanted, which was for her to live forever. I wanted to let her rest in the earth.
But this earth?
I contemplated the traffic noise, the yelling, the foundry waste in the topsoil, the angry drivers, the neighbors calling the cops on each other over weeds in the lawn, the gas station next door. I thought about how when we eventually leave this place— too old for the stairs, some awful operation might open up here. Banjo felt too sacred, too beautiful and special for this fucked up place. I considered driving her to Wisconsin and burying her at my parents house– a much more rural place, but Banjo barely knew that place. The practical desire of visiting her grave daily echoed through my mind. I wanted her to be near us. I started to think about burying Banjo here as an act of radical love both for her and for this wounded place. Insisting upon connection with the earth- and not just a theoretical clean earth somewhere outside the city- but this very spot with all its wounds — means something.
A week before Banjo died I stumbled upon this quote by Arundhati Roy— It’s a response to a friend’s suggestion that she leave Delhi (in the context of India and Pakistan testing Nuclear weapons and raising concerns about nuclear conflict in 1998).
Love is specific. It is not theoretical- It’s made of little experiences and sensations. It’s felt within living bodies in acute and physical ways. Expressions of love are specific too— acts of physical touch, a handmade gift guided by intuitions about the desires of others, a friendly phone call. These are not interchangeable. We cannot simply find another Banjo. We cannot continue to move out of wider and wider sacrifice zones. Leaving a wake of more damage as we move around living life out of sync with the specific patch of earth we live on.
Allowing ourselves to feel the depth of love for the everyday world we live in and our companions here — and insisting on the specificity of this love, would change everything.
When I returned home with Banjo’s body, Michael had already started digging her grave. We decided to bury her in her favorite place in the yard— under an old rusty trailer. She used to dig under there, and would often lay in her hole and watch us. Michael and I oscillated between convulsing with tears and moments of surprising composure as we intuitively created a little ceremony of this profoundly difficult action.
We made sure the hole was deep and shaped right so her body could rest comfortably, we wrote her little notes which we read to her before we wrapped her in flowers and the flat sheet off our bed. We gave her body some last pets and kisses and we lowered her carefully into the ancient layers of sandy earth. We started gently and slowly pushing sand into the hole with our hands. Eventually Michael got the shovel again and the older sand mixed with the more recent topsoil. Pieces of the mysterious foundry waste material and the grayish soil around it got mixed in as we created a swirl of timescales atop Banjo’s body. As we did this the dust in the air made me think about how porous our bodies are— sensitive to the same poisons as hers.
Love and Anarchy
After the burial we sat by a backyard fire and reminisced about Banjo. Our heads and bodies sore from the crying and digging and grief, but for a moment I felt an odd peace. We decided to go upstairs and lay on the couch—to distract ourselves from bodily grief with some mindless television.
The Republican National Convention was on and we couldn’t look away.
The setting was dictatorial in style. The geometry and the singularity of the podium. The lack of audience due to the covid-19 pandemic was haunting. A core message conveyed was that this country can be saved by one man alone. Trump spoke about the importance of defeating leftists and anarchists. And I thought about this.
Anarchy is not synonymous with chaos— anarchy in action is mutual aid. It is community empowered care and protection. Anarchy is afoot when you share what you have in advance of policies that would institutionalize the much-needed redistribution of wealth. It’s about fostering mutualist and non-coercive relationships. Anarchy is mowing your neighbor’s lawn and doing your friends laundry, and asking for and receiving help when you need it. Not because we are weak, but because we are humans motivated by love. Embodied anarchy through mutual aid is a way to develop the interpersonal skills and relational networks we will need to govern ourselves in socialist arrangements. Does anarchy is the US contain the seeds of a socialist revolution? In Vietnam, socialism is not just about the state- it’s also about culture- a culture of sharing, much like what I’ve outlined above.
Human’s most powerful survival skill is not our intellect, but our ability to work together to survive. This is something beautiful we have in common with dogs and many other beings. I find myself wondering about the scale at which humans have evolved to work together. My ability to believe that human civilizations can be governed on the scale of a modern nation state is being tested.
What would happen if people realized that we could care for each other without the hand of the state mandating and depersonalizing this care? What if we demanded that our comfort never came at the cost of others – near or distant? What if we realized the power of local communities managed through direct democracies and personal relationships? What if the very scale of the modern nation state is inherently dehumanizing and invites corruption?— what if it turns people into oppressors or victims, and actively weakens cultures of mutualism acted out at a specific local scale in the political imagination of everyday life?
My heretic ancestors fought for the survival of the commons and of communal life as they resisted land enclosures and the wage system in Europe. My intuitions follow in this legacy of love for my neighbors and insistence of the common sacredness of this place. I’m not fighting for the nation with all its false stories, my “fight” is inspired by a specific and fierce love for the living beings I am in community with and the place itself.
It makes sense to me that Trump rails against anarchy. Perhaps it is an even greater threat to his fascist dreams than the democratic socialist movement which seems to favor reformist strategies, which assumes our democracy is stable enough to even facilitate this shift. Anarchism and socialism are natural bedfellows. A leftist anarchist persuasion calls us to share resources and demand non-exploitation in our daily lives on a local level, outside of, and in advance of government mandates. When we follow these impulses a window to another world opens up. Would the view from this window facilitate the destruction of monopolies? Would it create the conditions for people to seize the means of production and create cooperative economies that serve life— Instead of creating lives that serve soulless economies for the profit of an ever smaller minority living in gated communities and high-rises?
The thing about leftist Anarchist philosophy is that it can be acted upon at the scale of relationships of individual people. The people, then entangled in acts of sharing with friends and strangers can weather uncertainty- difficulty and all, conflict and all. With all the political division and increasing violence in this country, looking to places like Rojava for inspiration seems increasingly valid. If a United States isn’t possible, how can we make pockets of humanity within a sea of hatred and justified distrust and rage? The resilience of these smaller cultures of humanity has to do with the foundational scale- it is human scale. Where Democratic socialism seems a distant dream- leftist anarchists are already transforming people and communities and through informal social safety nets and communities of care spun from the direct involvement of ordinary people in specific localities– providing people with a sense of purpose and the feeling that they are cared for and belong. It is happening now, in this fucked up place and in these shit circumstances. Leftist anarchy balances freedom with responsibility, on a fulcrum of love.
While the far right loves to talk about freedom (selectively granted of course)– responsibility is the key to a deeper social belonging that “proud” Americans lack and sorely need. Before the covid-19 pandemic the lifespan of Americans was threatened by a rising epidemic of loneliness. This loneliness is even more chronic now in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.
I read an article a while back about how we should not forget that mutual aid should not be necessary– that our political organizing should have the end goal of reshaping our modern american state into a state that cares for its citizens. I wonder if that’s even possible given the particular history of the US. I wonder if mutual aid is a cultural impulse that must be strengthened not just as a temporary step– but as the foundation for a humane civilization. I worry that outsourcing more and more forms of care to the state or businesses simply makes our loneliness grow, because these forms of institutionalized care don’t contain a specific locality of love. In this scenario we become even more disempowered. Love is a revolutionary force that we often forget as we obsess about policy. I, and many of my friends wore masks in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic well before it was mandated by the state- because of this love.
With these questions, I’m tracing the outlines of a spiritual shift built upon a love that is specific. It is already happening, and it is perhaps the greatest threat to our current national trajectory towards even more brutal neoliberalism and fascism.
Rest in peace dearest Banjo, thank you for expanding my freedom and my responsibility through love. You have changed me.