By Tommy Airey, re-posted from Easy Yolk
On Fat Tuesday, six days into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I drove out of Detroit while it was still dark. For the first two hours, the slipped disk in my upper back was screaming. This thorn in my flesh, this messenger from Satan, was signaling a lack of emotional support in a world collapsing with the 4 C’s: capitalism, climate, covid and conflict. I drove through all four time zones as gas prices sky-rocketed and the stealth BA. 2 variant spread. On the road, in this mess, I was trusting in Something greater than myself, a divine Presence percolating the world with steadfast love and solidarity. This Force does not sit on a throne. It hovers low like a nurturing mother bird and runs fast like an open-hearted, emotionally expressive father figure.
Right before I rolled through Wentzville, Missouri where the school district banned Kiese Laymon’s brilliant memoir Heavy, a billboard beamed “Kill Relativism, Not Babies.” I was listening to Ocean Vuong’s stunning On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous. Early in his memoir, Vuong tells the story of being bullied by a boy on a bus, “He was only nine,” Vuong writes, “but he had already mastered the dialect of damaged American fathers.” While I was going 80 on I-70, my thoughts veered towards my nephew Riley, who is nine, who has been bullied at school, who is growing up in a society with the dialect of damaged American fathers on surround sound.
In his book, Vuong narrates the migratory path of monarch butterflies. Each year, the monarchs move from Mexico to Canada in the early summer. And then back before winter. However, each butterfly lives just long enough to make the trek one-way. Only the children get to return to the place of their parents’ birth. Since 2013, I have been making multi-annual migrations from the West Coast to Detroit. And then back again. I’ve made the one-way trek sixteen times. In less than a decade, through a lot of death and rebirth, I’ve somehow sustained sixteen Monarch butterfly lifetimes.
When I got to Lawrence, Kansas an hour before sunset, it was 77 degrees. I parked and went for a run, an up-and-back on Mass Street, across the bridge, over the Kansas River, and then back, past city hall where Langston Hughes is quoted on a bronze plaque out front:
We have tomorrow
Bright before us
Like a flame.
In movement memory, Langston Hughes is connected to Harlem, but he spent most of his childhood in Lawrence, raised by his grandmother. To combat an intense unhappiness and loneliness, Hughes immersed himself in books “where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas.” White boys like nephew Riley and I need books too. So we can learn a new language, so we can speak treason to the dialect of damaged fathers. Certain books threaten damaged fathers. That’s why certain books are banned in places like Wentzville, Missouri.
As it turns out, my road trip roughly traced the 19th century Potawatomie trail of death march, a two-month trek from northern Indiana to eastern Kansas. The federal government commissioned a local white militia to forcibly remove more than 800 Native people from land tended by their ancestors for thousands of years. Mapquest also mirrored my own family’s migration pattern. My great-great-grandfather Will Ritter left rural Michigan for the Dakotas when he was 18. My great-grandfather Jack Brady was born in Ohio, but made his way to Montana and Washington. My grandparents George Riese and Betty Griffith were married in Illinois, but headed to California in their early 20’s. If I go back 150 years, my seed was planted in Germany, England, Wales, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois. By 1945, all my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were either dead or on the west coast of the US.
The Indigenous shaman Martin Prechtel writes that, for generations, ghosts have been chasing the ancestors of white people west, toward the setting sun. The ghosts move on whiteness, patriarchy and the profit motive. They haunt our family systems and societal institutions. We keep moving, stay busy, never healed, never truly at home. Prechtel says that unless we feed the ancestors with words and eloquence, we will become depressed by these ghosts. Beauty is rooted in a devotion to understanding the land we live on and the history that brought us here. A history that is always in the room with us.
My role in this ongoing historical drama is to metabolize the untended grief and trauma that me and my Ancestors have been trying to outwit, outrun and outgun for centuries. I am learning that it calls for therapy, studying sacred texts, unhindered time with the more-than-human-world, intentionality with tender and transparent kindreds, and a commitment to making art. The grief and the beauty are the medicine that can heal me—and my Ancestors, the only audience necessary for my writing, wounded healing, cooking, quirky fashion, long runs, playful banter and interior decorating. The artist is not about numbering and counting, as Rilke wrote, but ripening like a tree that does not force its sap.
On the road, the grief and beauty caught up with me in the Rockies. An hour after dawn, I teared up in snow-covered Glenwood Canyon. The cry was beckoning me back to what Bayo Akomolafe calls a small, intense, intimate life, a soul fermentation described by Detroit author adrienne maree brown that shifts from critical mass to critical connections, from a stay-on-the-surface, one-mile wide, one-inch deep dynamic to a stay-in-my-lane, one-mile deep, one-inch wide mentality. It is a paradigm shift away from the performative and the productive towards a life plan that promotes authentic relationships. This requires less preparation and a whole lot more presence.
On the road, I was coming to the realization (again) that I need to do a lot less with my life. I need to say “no.” To name limits. To ask for help. To savor. To pay attention to the pain—inside of me and all around me. To get out of my head and drop into my heart. To shelve the duty and pursue pleasure. To study root causes. To connect with my deep Ancestors, pre-colonial Celtic forebears who were restless and curious people. They took up soul quests called immrama. On these wonder voyages, these outward journeys that paralleled an inward path, they boarded their curraghs and followed the signs—but they always found their way back to the land of their ancestors. More brightly colored than ever. Like Monarch butterflies.
* * *
The day before I migrated, I was writing in my mobile office in one of Detroit’s best kept wilderness secrets. Woodlawn Cemetery on Woodward Avenue. I parked our 2009 Toyota Corolla just as a Cooper’s Hawk was squatting with its wings spread out. The hawk had a squirrel in her talons. It was time for lunch. The predatory falcons kept showing up on the way out West. A Bald Eagle greeted me hovering over the Kansas River in Lawrence. Two Red-Tailed Hawks circled a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean on Acjachemen land. Spirit was sending signs, alerting me to look out for those, according to the prophet Micah, who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds—and then perform it because it is in their power. Those, according to the prophet Vuong, who have mastered the dialect of damaged American fathers.
I arrived in Orange County the day after a trustee of the local school district resigned because she was receiving death threats for her vote against lifting mask mandates. A few days later, I conspired with my mother-in-law to surprise my younger nephew Mason at an In-n-Out Burger across the street from Costco, Walmart and the Home Depot. After I wolfed down my fries and a grilled cheese animal-style, just as we were preparing to pick up Riley, I made a formal proposal. “When we are waiting for Riley in front of the school,” I told Mason, “I will dress up in my Superman onesie and when he comes out, I will run around loudly calling out his name.” I checked in with the quieter Mason, who tends to shy away from spectacle. “If I do this,” I asked, “will you be embarrassed?” “No,” Mason shot back matter-of-factly, “You are the one who should be embarrassed.” Good point.
Later, as I was driving through suburban housing developments, I was thinking about where Orange County had slid since the 1960’s, when white evangelicals migrated en masse from the South to take jobs in the defense industry. I was thinking about a former student of mine who is now a pastor at a fundamentalist bible church in the area. He has six children and owns a home listed on Zillow for more than $2 million. I’m assuming he got some help on the down payment from his dad, the former CEO of a company that builds predator drones.
I was also thinking about a friend, born and raised in Flint, Michigan, who just sold his childhood home. He was hoping to get $85,000 for it. Instead, he sold it for far less. Because almost a decade ago, a decision was made by state officials and an emergency manager appointed by the Governor of Michigan to switch the drinking water supply from the Detroit River to the Flint River while a new corporate-sponsored pipeline was being built to suck water out of Lake Huron. The water was not properly treated. Tap water is still poisoned today. An investigation into who was responsible was cancelled.
As I was thinking about this parable of two properties, I couldn’t shake what nephew Mason said to me at lunch. We really should be embarrassed that we still live in a society, in the words of Christina Sharpe, with a racial calculus and political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago. White Americans, with very few exceptions, have refused to break rank with the counterfeit calculus and arithmetic of America. As a result, 184 years after the Potawatomi trail of death march, the grief has piled up. We are haunted. Because the default setting of white America is stuck on mastering the dialect of damaged American fathers instead of mirroring the undignified dad who runs to his prodigal son and smothers him with hugs and kisses.
Tommy Airey is a post-Evangelical pastor and the author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018). He is currently working on his second book Conspiracy: A Biblical Spirituality for Breaking Rank. Tommy consistently posts shorter pieces to his blog Easy Yolk.