No Man’s Land

The pool at my gym is in a huge room, with a knotty pine ceiling, pierced by large, square skylights. The room is at least 20 feet tall, and the skylights are at least 15 feet across, so you feel like you are under the open sky if you look up. Or, if you are like me, prefer to swim the backstroke.

I say prefer there, like I have a quiver full of strokes available to me, but swimming is a skill I learned as an adult, so it’s pretty much backstroke, breaststroke, or sink. But it’s fine – I like the backstroke and the relaxed pace it forces upon me. It’s hard to stress about much when you are in the rhythm of the backstroke.

The guy in the lane next to mine, however, was doing the freestyle crawl, and he had lots of gear with him. He had a person who was timing his laps, and while I’m strolling along, leisurely stroking (Tickle, T, Touch. Tickle, T, Touch…), he is powering through. It’s obvious he is preparing for some form of competition.

I decidedly, am not. As I make my slow way down the lane, he passes me multiple times. Part of me feels some form of atavistic urge to accelerate,  some concern that he is doing better than I am, that he is somehow superior to me, somehow more masculine than I am.

As I swim down the lane, I am looking at the sky overhead – another reason I prefer the backstroke in this pool. The clear blue sky with traces of white clouds sail by, and the 25-meter pool has two and a half skylights under which I will pass as I swim each length. As the swimmer next to me flails past, I suppress the urge to push ahead, to be faster, to engage in some futile attempt at competition, and instead notice, high above, a jet airplane headed west, away from the airport.

I wonder briefly where they are headed, the people on that plane. Are they on a business trip, the fate of the account depending on their being sharp at the meeting to which they are headed? Is it for pleasure – perhaps a trip to see grandma, after almost two years apart because of COVID? Or an emergency trip home, because someone’s unvaccinated parent is about to be taken off the ventilator?

This passes through my head as I count my strokes, while Greg Louganis in the next lane is splashing for all he’s worth, and the time keeper shouts encouragement. I have to count my strokes, because this is not a pool designed for races, and thus has no row of flags near the end of the swim lane. Which means that if you lose yourself in your thoughts while doing the backstroke, you will smash your head into the wall of the pool.

As a person with ADHD, I have before described my inner monologue as actually like being in the electronics department at a store, where there is a wall of televisions, but all with the volume up and all tuned to different channels. At times I can tune into one, while the others drift into the background, but it always requires concentration to do, and if I relax too much, it all becomes just noise.

So here I am, counting my strokes – I hit the wall somewhere between 21 and 23, so at 21 I become careful. But while I’m counting my strokes, I’m also aware of swimmer guy in the next lane, and also balancing my urge to compete with my awareness that the vast sky is above me, seemingly going on forever (12, 13, 14). And it occurs to me that competitiveness is based on scarcity – the certainty that only one of us can win, that there are only so many ways to win, that the person in second place is the first loser, and all that – while the unfolding blue sky is a sign of the abundance that exists all around me, and (16, 17) there is no reason to think that I should be denied participation in that natural abundance.


I hit the wall. Hard. And not for the first time in my life, I reflect on the balance that I came up against in that moment, in the deep end of the pool, as I thrash about for air. The desire to live in my head, where I feel connected and integrated, and the necessity to maintain an awareness of the world around me so I do not hit my head on the wall, or lose my license because of a forgotten ticket, or watch undocumented folks get scapegoated.

That no man’s land on the border, between the aspiration of what could be and the stark reality of what actually is, seems to be my lot in which to dwell, and so I find myself here in the Deep South, living between Humidity and Hope.

Hope is a choice.

I met a new friend today. At least, I think we will be friends.

It was one of those conversations where you just agree to meet up for coffee and before you know it, three hours have passed and you have talked about 5 or 6 different things, and the conversation flows easily from one thing to the next. Those are rare for me, but I love it when they happen.

And one of the things we talked about was how change happens. I have these conversations a lot these days. We look around us and feel like things are bleak and divided, and we wonder if there is any way out. If those who work to oppress others, those who would take rights from others, those who work for their own self-interest even when it hurts others, and we wonder how we get them to change.

My new friend was somewhat cynical. “I think I have given up on their changing,” she said. “I mean, I want to believe they can, but it doesn’t feel like a real possibility”.

I told her I didn’t have enough self-esteem to believe that people can’t change.

She was puzzled. So I explained that I once believed very different things than I do now about… almost everything. I used to be an Evangelical who wanted to save your soul from Hell, and now I’m not. I used to believe God did not love Gay people, and now I don’t believe that. I used to chase money, and now I chase relationships. I used to want to distance myself from the South, and now it’s a core part of my identity.

“But here’s the thing: In every one of those instances, I didn’t change because I accidentally had a change of heart, but because of a relationship I had that caused me to reconsider my position.  I changed because who I knew changed, and I changed because my ideology had to follow my relationships. My heart changed, and then waited for my head to catch up.

The Jewish mystic Abraham Heschel said that when it came to God, there were no proofs, but only witnesses. In other words, some things can’t be proven but only experienced. I believe people can change because I have changed. A lot.  I can’t prove that people can change, but I am a witness to the fact that they do.

And I don’t believe I’m special. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m not. I’m pretty mundane, actually. And if I can change, as un-special as I am, then pretty much anyone can, given time and the right relationships. Or else I have to assume I’m so special that I think I can change, but they can’t. And I don’t have enough ego for that.

“That is… hopeful. Maybe more hope than I have right now,” she said.

“Oh yeah. It’s hopeful as hell. Because I want things to change. And I believe that the only way things will change is because people change. And if I thought people couldn’t change, then what choice would I have but despair? So I find myself having to choose between hope and despair.

“And I choose hope.”

Planting as resistance

I went tree shopping today.

We live on half an acre, in a former suburb. The house was outside the city limits when my neighborhood was built, but it would be annexed just five years later while the Korean War was smoldering.

It was nearly a blank slate when we bought it nearly three years ago, with a beautiful southern magnolia in the front yard and seven pine trees scattered around the lot and not much else. It was a great house with good bones, not looking its seventy years. It had been a church parsonage for its whole life before we bought it, which meant it had been cared for but never loved. We decided to love it.

Along came the pandemic, and then we endured hell as foster parents (not from the kids – from the system) and then my Dad died from COVID and then we had a damn insurrection in Washington and through it all, the old house began to love us back.

It’s easy to anthropomorphize things like a house. Heck, I just did it in that last paragraph. But it did seem like the house was happier being cared for, like it liked having the perennial bed planted in the front yard, liked the new deck we put up after cutting down the overgrown wisteria crawling all over the back patio. It’s like it knew we were looking out for it when we fixed the leak in the roof and replaced the sewer pipes.

But it isn’t just because we love the house.

One of the most horrible things at that time was to listen on the wireless to the speeches of Hitler—the savage and insane ravings of a vindictive underdog who suddenly saw himself to be all-powerful. We were in Rodmell during the late summer of 1939, and I used to listen to those ranting, raving speeches. One afternoon I was planting in the orchard under an apple-tree iris reticulata, those lovely violet flowers… Suddenly I heard Virginia’s voice calling to me from the sitting room window: “Hitler is making a speech.” I shouted back, “I shan’t come. I’m planting iris and they will be flowering long after he is dead.” – Leonard Wolf, in Downhill All The Way: An Autobiography of the Years 1919-1939

So I went tree shopping today. I’m currently looking for a particular crab apple tree, one that has edible fruit and long blooms and is disease resistant and can put up with our severe summer humidity. I love crab apples – I planted three at our last house – but here I am going to try growing apples as well, and I need the crab for a pollinator, in addition to its being beautiful and a gift to the wildlife.

By next spring, we will have 2 apple trees, a crab apple, six plum trees, a peach, two figs, 10 blueberry bushes, four blackberries and two muscadine vines. The apples and crab will go in this fall, and the peach is currently sitting in the driveway waiting for me to plant it.

It’s not just the fruit. It’s that planting things that will endure are acts of resistance to a world gone mad. It’s a form of resistance against all the forces that try to harm us, that try to drag us down, that try to dehumanize us.

Growing fruit is a long-term commitment to a place. We will have figs and blueberries next year, but it will be at least 3 years before we have peaches, and perhaps five before we have apples. But they will feed people long after current politicians are long- dead, they provide us nourishment and flowers and pollen for the bees and food for the birds and perhaps most off all, they are our vote for a future that looks very different than the present.

They are living, growing monuments to hope, to the future, to a world that will long outlast the one we have now. They let me remember who I am and what I hope for in the midst of a world gone mad.And while I don’t think you have to plant trees – maybe you plant iris instead, or flowers, or raise children – I’m all in favor of planting something.

Do you have practices that sustain you in the midst of all this? If so, tell us about them in the comments below.

Photo by Jacob Farrar on Unsplash