When Peace is a Bad Word

The trunks were thick in every direction, and the hills monotonous roils lifting and falling into the distance. This heavy oak forest north of Toronto was let free to grow by the Canadian government. I seem to remember these forests were called Queensland, but now I can’t find written proof. With only a five-minute walk from the main lodge, I had disappeared into the woods to “connect with them.” The camp where I spent summers working as a teenager connected me to this work opportunity in Canada. The place paid me as much as the train it took to get there, but I was in for the ride. It was a family program where parents, young kids, and teenagers would camp out and connect with nature in a utopian kind of program that was based in teachings of indigenous elders, but there were not many indigenous people I saw.  I knew almost nothing about the program before arriving, but once I got there I found my job was to lead a group of seven teens into the woods for the week.

 

I had experience hiking and camping with groups of children in the woods, but they were often woods I was familiar with. My walks in the woods before taking a group of kids out were usually to find plants, to see the way the trees grew and died, to get a sense of the land, and center myself. I was 20 years old with two years of New York City under my belt and thick thighs from walking. I was streaming with confidence, yet there I was, yards from the lodge and I could have been 5 miles north. It wouldn’t have made a difference to me. I was lost, and calling myself a complete fool for thinking I could jaunt into a huge Canadian forest I didn’t know. I believed, because I had happy experiences in the woods before, that they somehow loved me. This appears to be the difference between the city and the forest. The forest won’t give you limits or options. While there are directions to follow or go against in the city, the forest exists. While the city is the dream landscape of architects and city planners and regulators, the forest, everything in the forest is in the process of living and composting. It’s not a place, it’s a community.

I don’t remember much of being lost, just the way the trees, the speckled sky, and the ground appeared to converge and wind around me. I knew there were thousands of acres to the north. There on the seam between humans and forest, I looked for familiar cues to return and, not finding any, I considered my relationship to both.

I’ve always had a power complex about the word peace. I don’t know if I was born with it or if it was given to me. Like a spell, I believe it may have been cast at birth. My name, “Irene” is a name derived from the Greek “Eirene.” In Greek it is the name of the goddess of peace. It has since traveled all over the world. I have spoken to people of all different cultures who all have said that versions of Irene are common in their friends or families. Ostensibly, an outcome of imperialism.

At an event for Anemones, a zine published by Decolonize This Place, one of the organizers of art actions to protest Warren Kanders at the Whitney Biennial this year, a collaborator with the collective MTL+ brought up how New York is a little obsessed with Gandhi, who stands at the southwestern corner of Union Square. Having grown up idealizing the nonviolent resistance strategies of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., it caught me off guard to consider another generative form of resistance. Especially when, for so long, I have relied upon a place of neutrality within myself to navigate difficult situations.

I looked up the word peace in order to get this all straight:

 

Merriam Webster

peace

noun

\ ˈpēs   \

     1: a state of tranquility or quiet: such as a: freedom from civil disturbance b: a state of security or order within a community provided for by law or custom  

      2: freedom from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions

      3: harmony in personal relations

       4a: a state or period of mutual concord between governments b: a pact or agreement to end hostilities between those who have been at war or in a state of enmity

        5: used interjectionally to ask for silence or calm or as a greeting or farewell

 

 

Dictionary.com adds:

synm

4. law and order, lawfulness, order, peacefulness, peaceableness, harmony, harmoniousness, accord, concord, amity, amicableness, goodwill, friendship, cordiality, nonaggression, nonviolence

Okay, I will take friendship. I may even take bouts of harmony. But leave the rest, it’s oppressive; inexpressive. I don’t want to live on an entirely peaceful planet if this is what it is. Cordial? Nonaggression? Nonviolence? Emotions must be expressed or they are suppressed.  According to the American Psychological Association, anger is a tool for action and problem solving. There exists a debilitating stigma against confrontation in “civil society.” Anger is a difficult emotion for me to articulate, as I am sure is true for many people. Anger is perceived as dangerous, wild, uncontrollable. An angry person is perceived as losing some of their personhood, which makes the irrational absurd and unreal, and the more rational is empowered to suppress anger. But to be able to see one another, we must be able to speak and to listen to one another. The texture of emotion is layered with strains of multiple emotions so anger flows with joy and sadness and all the rest. The expression of anger requires emotional action and sound. It requires disagreement, and I believe that there is an element of physical presence that goes along with the expression of anger. Like any emotion, anger is expressed just as much physically as it is verbally, which is why passive approaches to resistance are problematic.

The point at which I most gravely misunderstood the concept of “peace” was when I first started teaching. I worked with a group of third and fourth graders. During that first year (and probably into the second as well.), the quiet classroom was the peaceful classroom. But the kids were silently resenting me, saying I didn’t listen to them. And the silence became a contemptuous place. When the quiet cracked, it flowed, and the atmosphere became impossible for me to maintain with my force of will alone. It took a while for me to let go of my ego, and after some time healing relationships (some of which did not heal), I found that the most rich classroom spaces were not quiet, but places where clear, fair, and shifting boundaries were set that were based on the children’s needs and where they were open to express their feelings without judgement. However, a wonderful classroom environment can only go so far. We were still in a low income, primarily Puerto Rican and Dominican classroom, and here I was a white teacher invoking all of the privileges I knew.  And the classroom was owned by the school, and the school one day arrested a child for stealing a teacher’s money. This becomes, and I bring this back to land, an issue of space. 

No, I’m not a violent person. I am not implying that to resist means to take up arms. I strongly believe that hate produces more hate. This does not mean that nonviolence is equivalent to love. And this doesn’t mean that direct, intentional action and disruption is not love. The Civil Rights movement made very important changes in the laws of this country. Marches have made impacts on legislature. But it didn’t change the people it was asking to change. And while laws create the illusion of peace, laws, and to tug at this cliché, to pull this little chunk right out, laws are meant to be broken. As long as people do not empathetically care for one another, and actively communicate with one another, there are going to be digressions from the rule of law.

The air in the crosscountry flight is stale. Pale dull walls wrap around us like I imagine the insides of eggs gone bad look. We are close to one another, curled into pretzel positions waiting to land. East to west, we can see the land transform from green to flat and brown, all allocated into squares until we get to the Rockies where the thin divides of land shapes dissipate into peaks. The sequence of land across the United States tells a story of separation. This western (which has spread to almost all places on the globe) concept of land ownership begins within England in the 12th century and the British Parliament issued the “Enclosure Acts” beginning in 1730. This model began with the interest of landowners. It promised to protect their property and their serfs. Serfs were taxed to use their land (which was the beginning of rent). Law enforcement was created to protect these landowners, thereby keeping their piece: the peace. Thereby, when the English came to the “Americas,” they brought the “Law of Enclosure” with them. So since there was no “property ownership” yet, land was up for grabs. 

So I got lost in the woods in the search for peace. But peace is not an external, political state. Peace cannot be centered around the controlling and manipulation of space. Imagine a composting process. There will never be a static protection. We live like surfers on the backs of waves, we live on continental rifts, shifting tectonic plates and rotating soil, we live with constant overhaul, and the only disruption to that is the capitalistic push to encapsulate land. We do not live on a peaceful planet. Imagine this outlook spread from one to two years, to many. We can’t look at short term timelines. We reach to people like we are reaching into ourselves, across generations. Within our own bodies are the makings of our grandchildren. I imagine a bright light flowing from our gut, like a beacon for others, connecting each other in strong bonds of empathy, not unlike Donnie Darko.

Sometimes, in a city surrounded by people, teetering between worlds of media and reality, I feel my selfhood slipping, my identity changing. In many ways the changes in community affect identity changes in the self. Many of these discoveries happen when I am lost. Capitalism defines our identities. When our selves are transactional, we define our selves like places are defined and made static our changing selves become broken, which happens all the time. The solutions lie in the next transaction, forgetting the ongoing, the entire process that is existing within us at every moment, the gentle biomes and seeds that inform and change us right now.

There is a Bread and Puppet book I found during my internship with Printed Matter called I Am You. It’s a book about a man and a bird who discover they are the same and fly away. Bread and Puppet Theater is an activist theater group that uses large scale puppets and masks. To merge with others we must first acknowledge that in the merging we will become unrecognizable.

I sought refuge in the forest. I went to the forest because I thought I knew it and that I could identify it. In many ways I could, but the land was fundamentally not neutral. My understanding of land shifted in that moment. In a way, by being lost in it, I became it. Measured breathing allowed me to focus on the things I knew instinctually. Simply, the sun was veering to the west, so I gently watched it stay on my right as I eased down toward the lodge and back. I see myself, the history of my name, the violence in my body. I accept it and I must forgive myself. While I didn’t find that peace I was looking for in the forest, I did find a will inside myself, a sense of capability, and a challenge I continue to grapple with. And it is for the better. To be lost is a form of resistance: walking, solitude, survival, unproductive, inefficient. To be lost strengthens our senses. I encourage us to get lost, to let go of paths we once followed. I hope we see the world in a different way over and over again without feeling broken, while sensitively negotiating with land as we go. I hope we can engage with the world in a different way, to express ourselves with openness and the knowledge that we are keeping the peace by allowing disruptive, radical change.