Yesterday I dipped into the deep grief that’s been masked by depression over the last few months. It’s been hard to access my sadness, deeply buried and rarely excavated as is my sorrow about the state of the planet. It made me reflect on a time where I had hope and idealism, and believed that anything was possible. I have always believed deeply in social justice and environmental protection. I wanted to be a politician, and believed I could make a difference. I remember as a 10 year old wearing a Shirley Chisholm for president button on my shirt which read “a woman’s place is in the house… and the senate”. My parents were McGovern supporters. We lived amidst a sea of Lockheed engineers who backed Nixon. Although I felt like a voice in the wilderness, I felt that I had a moral obligation to stand up for what I believed was right.
So when did that stop? When did I become disillusioned? I remember writing a letter to the editor to the San Jose Mercury as an 11 year old entitled Miracle of Orchards. In it I asked people to protect the few remaining orchards in Sunnyvale. Just years before I would run through acres of apricot and plum trees, and sadly watched as each orchard was summarily sent to oblivion. Without thought of long-term destruction, or the loss of some of the best top-soil for crop growing anywhere. I wrote to Nixon about this and got a photo of his family back. I remember being enraged that he didn’t do anything or suggest anything. As a 9 year old, I would get into arguments with my Uncle Joe about the importance of environmental protection. He would argue that “progress” was necessary and trumped protecting the earth. I often felt like the Lorax when arguing with adults, as they would shout my desire to defend the earth down. Perhaps as they had once been shouted down. And like the Lorax, after such debates I would lift myself into the air and disappear through a hole in the clouds. Never to reappear.
Then my parents separated. Their relationship had become increasingly violent, marked by almost daily raging from my father and crying and withdrawal from my mother. As the only child, I did my best to play mediator for my fractured family. My heart broke when my father left. I loved him dearly and unconditionally, rage and all. My heart has never really recovered. I spent the next many years secretly hoping that my parents would reconcile. I didn’t even dare admit it to myself, let alone tell anyone else. It would leak out in moments when I could no longer keep up the facade that I was okay. I wasn’t. I was broken, bereft of love, and didn’t believe I could heal, or that life was worth living.
It’s probably no accident that I gave up on idealism when my family split. I didn’t realize it at that time, but I all but lost my belief in the power of the people to change the world. I no longer got involved in local environmental activism. It made me depressed to see how big business always won, because they had more money, lawyers, and would simply wait out the environmentalist squeaky wheels. I applied myself to school and excelled, but did not believe that I should go on to study the environment or biology, because nothing could be done.
So I became a physics major at UCSC. But after the end of only the first quarter, I knew it wasn’t the right major for me. I was doing very well relative to others in the class, but felt that it was too myopic a focus. I cared about so many things, and wasn’t sure what to focus on. So I went on pause and took classes at Cabrillo for 2 years while I let myself take the classes I really wanted: creative writing, feminist visions of the future, African dance, modern dance, improvisational theater, and swimming. I rode my bike to school every day, and nourished my soul. Then I met a career counselor who told me that I should study what I really love. She asked me what I cared most deeply about, and I said the earth. So she replied, then go study environmental studies at UCSC.
I did. Thanks to her, I had at least one person who believed that what I cared about mattered. I had learned as a kid that whatever I was interested in was unimportant. Maybe it was all the times I told my dad about something that excited me, only to realize that he wasn’t listening. Or the times where I was all alone in my endeavors to change things for the better. Whatever the cause, I had deeply internalized the belief that what I cared about didn’t matter and wasn’t worth defending. The deeper message was that I didn’t matter. So being in the environmental studies department was a big contradiction. It still broke my heart to see all the environmental injustice in the world. I couldn’t handle the pain it triggered, and had to focus on other aspects of the program like natural history, policy, and planning.
After graduation, I worked with my mom at EMCON Associates, a company that managed hazardous waste, and then at the planning department for Santa Clara County. All the while, whether writing groundwater monitoring reports for clients like Chevron or overseeing tank pulls, I felt like I’d sold out. I wasn’t doing what I cared about but didn’t know how to advocate for the planet I loved so deeply. After an accident in which my car was totaled, I decided to take a job at Apple to make some money. I was honored to have been selected to be a technical writer for the prestigious Inside Mac team, especially as I didn’t have any programming experience. I pledged to get up to speed as quickly as possible, but it was a steep learning curve. I did learn C and C++ and wrote sample code in the former as part of the API documentation I produced. But I still felt unfulfilled and knew I was not contributing to the betterment of the planet.
One day, while working at Apple, I walked in the hills above Lake Almaden near Los Alamitos Creek trail. I was brought to tears by the beauty of that wild land, the boulders and green hills studded with new vegetation after a winter rain. It was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen in Santa Clara Valley. It had been a very important site to the Miwok/Ohlone people. I found a cave facing Mt Umunhum, and ducked into the roundish shelter. On the ceiling was a ochre spiral probably drawn in cinnabar. I later learned that to many native tribes, spirals were doorways to another world. I wondered whether this was such a portal. I left transformed by my visit. Later that night, I found out that my newly-discovered magical place was slated for destruction. A golf course.
My heart broke yet again. I could not handle any more loss. Especially of a place that was so special. I somehow got myself to go to some of the hearings and speak against the project. A woman from the Santa Clara Valley Water District told me that she was impressed by my eloquence. But that didn’t stop the project. I met Craig Breon at one of the hearings, who was the environmental advocate at Santa Clara Valley Audobon Society at the time. He invited me to volunteer for their Environmental Action Committee, which I did. I’m still a member 20+ years later, having chaired the group for a number of years. But I had lost my heart in the struggle. I couldn’t face more defeat. Ignorance seemed a better option than eyes-open realization of what was at stake.
Within a few months, I got word that Coyote Valley, another beloved magical land through which I rode my bike for years, was also slated for the chopping block. Developers at Cisco were chomping at the bit to destroy the only wildlife corridor (and last significant parcel of open space) in Santa Clara Valley. I wrote a detailed letter in response to their EIR, and a call to action with my friend John Beall. We both fought hard for several months. I had always admired John for his fighting spirit. A good Irishman. Months later I ran into him at Sunnyvale UUFS (the church I’d attended with my parents as a kid). I asked him how it was going, and he told me that he couldn’t bear continuing the fight for his beloved Coyote Valley. Because it broke his heart. I understood completely.
Like ghosts from a forgotten past, these and other struggles knock on my door as I feel the despair, anguish, and hopelessness triggered by the daily despotic actions only two weeks into the most destructive presidency in the history of this country. I am not sure what direction I will go. Perhaps I will move to another country. Perhaps I will stay and fight. I only know that I am very afraid, and afraid that others will let apathy or fear keep them from acting. Never before has there been a stronger need for real journalism, for politicians with a backbone to stand up to railroading, for all people to speak. Some say that we are acting too soon, that we should let him finish destroying the country before we exercise our rights. I know it will be too late if I wait. There will be no rights left to exercise.