My mother didn’t think it would end this way. But today’s the day. They’re coming, the police. Coming to arrest her.
“It’s not fair,” she says. Has she not been a good woman her whole life? She looks at me pleadingly, wanting affirmation.
She turns then, apparently noticing something on the floor.
“There he is.” She softens.
There’s a little dog crouched next to her wheelchair, she explains, who seems like all the pets she has loved and lost in this lifetime—but who is, interestingly enough, also part machine.
“Remember those dogs we’d watch outside Radio Shack in the mall?” she questions.
“You mean, those battery-operated ones?” I ask.
“Yes!” She points a shaking finger toward me, testifying I’ve made things, for one moment, clear.
I do recall them, how they used to make us laugh, a brief respite from hours of back-to-school shopping, enjoyed with the artificial sweetness of bubblegum ice cream licked off a pink plastic spoon. I think of those polyester canines perpetually somersaulting and hear their tinny yaps, how they would turn and turn, contained within a miniature white picket fence on the laminate floor.
“He’s kind of like that, but part real,” Mom says. “And his body is covered by metal.”
This dog appears only at my mother’s left side when the police get close. He is a protector. He brings her comfort, and for this I am glad. “But why do you think he is part machine, Mom?” I ask, honestly curious as I consider this modern mythical beast and his shiny metal armor.
Mom draws her brows together, concentrates, then shrugs.
“Isn’t everything these days?”
Mom and I have become closer since she has started sharing her delusions. One reason is because I genuinely feel sorry for her, the abject horror of her situation paling the intensity of our past differences. But there is something else. I can’t quite explain it, but in a strange way I think she is finally telling me the truth.
My mother’s psychosis is new, a tragic feature of late-stage Parkinson’s. But mental illness is no stranger in our family. My own history includes debilitating bouts of anxiety, which were particularly potent in my childhood.
I could feel the disparity between the laugh track of The Cosby Show and the “live at five” journalism reporting on acid rain, the hole in the ozone layer, and how Ronald Reagan was advocating for nuclear weapons in space. And the manic cadence of commercials just seemed to widen the uneasy gulf between the news and 1980s prime time.
I remember cutting the plastic rings off soda cans so sea animals wouldn’t become entangled, with the same guilty fervor that I brought to praying that I might actually be forgiven for original sin. I felt the press of something unbearable—something that I knew I was both complicit in and yet had no control over. Not knowing what else to do about this vague, siphoning pulse, this unnamed menace, I dropped to my knees and snipped away. But despite my diligence, I remember sensing that both my scissors and my prayers were probably futile.
Meanwhile, my skin broke out into rashes that seemed to have no cause; my heart palpitated wildly. There were stories that weren’t being told on the sitcoms, stories the nightly news hid behind its jingles, stories that could never be placated by the distractions of fake flipping dogs and bubblegum ice cream on the end of a disposable spoon. Greenhouse gas emissions were on a meteoric rise. Multinational corporations were destroying indigenous civilizations and the precious equatorial rainforests they tended to meet a ravenous appetite for oil. Animals were dying at unprecedented rates due to poaching, overhunting, habitat loss and other anthropocentric causes. I didn’t yet have words for any of this, but I had a felt sense something was very, very wrong—and no one was talking about it. Were my anxiety and my ailments these untold stories erupting through me?
I wonder if I should talk to my children frankly about collapse. I don’t know if it would be good parenting, because no parenting books give advice about the end of the world.
Thirty years since my own childhood concluded, an international climate panel has given us an actual timeline for irreversible global disaster, and recent studies about biodiversity loss point to how the mass extinctions of other species could very well lead to our own. Still, in my Southern California community, we have barely begun to talk about this, despite our raging wildfires, increasing drought cycles, rising sea levels, polluted water and toxic skies—to say nothing of the fact that the terrified migrants arriving at our border are actually climate refugees. At the same time, we are seeing growing rates of gun violence, suicide, depression and anxiety, as well as cancers and auto-immune disorders that could very well have their roots in what we have left unsaid.
Meanwhile, my older son has nightmares, mostly about aliens he has seen in movies, neutral gray faces upon which he throws his fears. Sometimes I witness a wariness in him, a nervousness. Is he sensing the unsaid, as we carry on to summer camp, to drum lessons, to another perfect beach day on a disappearing beach under the relentless sun?
Now a teenager, he retreats often to his computer, his thoughts and fears comingling with an ephemeral digital world that I’m concerned might seem more real to him than the canyon behind our house. I look at him in his room, his long curls coiled around a bright-blue gaming headset.
I think about my mom’s dog. About how much we have deadened and reduced ourselves under the spell of our mass Cartesian delusion and the laugh-tracked dreams of Western progress, flipping in useless somersaults behind our suburban picket fences while the Earth burns.
Isn’t everything now part machine?
Last year, I started making prayer flags, little cloth homages for extinct and endangered animals, and I invited others to join me. At first I thought it might just be a soft entry point into difficult discussions about ecological devastation, but I soon realized that the act of creating the flags was its own conversation.
At schools, libraries, summer camps and my home studio, I encourage participants, particularly the children, to engage their active imaginations and really feel what it would be like to be these animals: how they move, swim, fly, how they occupy their habitats, how they raise their babies. While we might have a group discussion before or after the activity, while we are painting, we mostly say very little to each other. We are listening to the animals and speaking back to them with each sweep of the brush. It is a chance to move beyond “awareness” of the overwhelming issue of species loss to personal connection with these beings as relatives, sensing their likeness to us. And we do this together.
When people do speak during painting, they often quite matter-of-factly express grief.
“I feel really sad this animal is no longer with us,” says one little boy painting a Caribbean monk seal in my younger son’s classroom. “I do, too,” I tell him, resisting the knee-jerk urge to try and make things better. I cannot, and he deserves both my honesty and the kindness of not having to hold a lie.
We continue, our brush strokes remembering, reanimating these lost lives. He gives me his flag when he is done, and I join it to the others on a string. We hang them in the courtyard of the school. We put these animals at the center of our public space, and as a community begin to express their stories.
A girl, whom I surmise to be about eight years old judging from her glitter shorts and lopsided ponytails, dabs stripes onto her flag at the library. Her face is calm and knowing, her focus exquisite. Coming closer, I realize she has painted a rainbow within the outline of a black-capped petrel, a bird threatened by the destruction of its mountain breeding grounds on the island of Hispaniola—Columbus’ first point of contact with the so-called New World. I ask why she has made that choice.
“Birds are different colors depending on the light,” she says simply, sagely.
I remember witnessing dawn at the ocean on a recent morning. A bevy of gulls flitting over the waves seemed to carry the hues of the mercurial, shifting light. I understood as I oriented my attention to the western sky, the great orb of morning lifting in the east behind me, that I was watching the sunrise in their bodies.
I tell the girl this. She smiles and nods, keeps painting. I am sharing something that, intuitively, she already knows: that what we are losing carries the light.
That night I dream of petrels. They are flying, a glory of rainbow bodies, but upon diving into the sea, become ensnared by a long, thick rope. I grasp the rope and pull it toward me, desperate to get to the birds, but it is so rough, plaited through with pelagic plastic—broken soda rings, bottle caps, sharp-shank straws—the undigested detritus of decades of progress. It cuts me, chafes my palms, and by the time I reach the petrels they are dead. I glide my hands over each still, feathered form. This goes on and on, until I realize the rope and the birds have fashioned a rosary, the avian bodies become beads that I am praying.
“It must be held in the hands,” a dream voice says.
I feel the soft bodies. I feel the rough rope.
I wake wondering what it would be like if we could hold this truth, our grief, our prayers, together.
Walking the beach, I discover a decaying gull anchored amongst the smooth, round sea stones. At first I pass it by, but then return.
I touch the feathers, peel the dry body off the rocks. It is a light thing, even lighter now in death. Its head is missing, and I wonder where it went. I cradle it in the crook of my arm, just as I held my friend’s newborn a few days prior. I feel in this bird my friend’s child and the little girl’s petrel. I feel in this bird 100 sunrises. I feel in this bird everything we have done.
Its breastbone and wishbone are exposed and facing upward, along with the ribs that once encased the heart.
“This is what matters,” the headless body says.
It must be held, this proud-soft carriage, now stripped and bone-essential, this space that remembers the heart. It must be held in the hands.
I call my mother.
She says: “They are coming for me soon. I think tonight.”
I tell her there is no threat. But I know this is not true.
She begins to sob. She has been a good woman who has played by the rules.
Mom’s breath is a rattle. I wish I could hold her hand in mine. It would feel like the body of the gull. More bone than flesh now, exposed, essential. We are far away from each other, so I close my eyes and hold her hand like another endangered animal in my imagination.
I want to give her some truth to make her less anxious. I tell her I am sorry she is scared. I tell her I am, too.
The dog has returned and is sitting on her left side. “I’m touching him,” she says. He is the amalgam of all she has loved.
“That’s good, Mom,” I say. “Keep petting him.”
I imagine us both slipping our hands beneath his metal armor, seeking out just the right place on the side of his chest, that place that still might be real, our palms listening, listening for the heart.
NOTES “All We Have Left Unsaid” is my response to Deena Metzger’s “Extinction Illness: Grave Affliction and Possibility.” It examines moments where the unbearable violence of the Anthropocene has erupted in my life, and, lacking a larger social narrative, has mutated into privatized struggles with mental and physical illness. Listening to dreams, art and encounters with the non-human world have guided me to name the problem of ecological devastation as well as to begin creating community spaces that might hold our grief, our prayers, and ultimately our belonging to the animate Earth.
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About the Author
Kristinha M. Anding is a writer, artist, storyteller, community organizer and former journalist. She has studied literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, ecological expressive arts at Sky Mountain Institute, and ecopsychology and mythology at Pacifica Graduate Institute. Her most recent initiative is The Blessing Flag Project, a community art activity that helps people form connections to extinct and endangered species. She currently finds home in the suburban wilds of Southern California.