The Tree of Life

Lessons of the bonsai garden during a season of anguish

Over the past ten days, we have been asked to digest a lot: an allied government’s admission that it murdered and dismembered a columnist; a spree of pipe bombs; the Sabbath slaughter of worshippers inside Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. Almost overlooked were the two shoppers shot to death at a Louisville, Kentucky supermarket, both African-American, by a shooter who reportedly picked out his victims by race, saying, “whites don’t shoot whites.” The killer first tried to blast his way into a black church, but finding the doors locked, hit a softer target instead — the school supply aisle at Kroger.

I was trying to process this vomitous profusion of violence while walking along the shore of Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland on an impossibly beautiful autumn morning.

I came upon one of the city’s hidden gems, a lakeside bonsai garden surrounded by an ornamental wooden fence and filled with potted trees, some up to 400 years old. Yet even in a botanical refuge bathed in morning light, there is no escaping the reminders of the racial injustice woven into our national fabric. Many of the specimens here have been tended through generations. A friend told me that when President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent Japanese Americans to internment camps during World War II, some California bonsai artists relinquished their prized trees to neighbors and friends, who tended them and returned them to their owners at the end of World War II.

An Oakland native named Fred Korematsu was arrested for refusing to report to an internment camp, and had the temerity to appeal being incarcerated on the basis of his ancestry to the U.S. Supreme Court. He lost. It was not until this year - yes, 2018- that the Supreme Court repudiated the 1944 decision, which erroneously ruled that the internment of Japanese American citizens was constitutional, a “military necessity” even. It was, of course, an abominable violation of the Constitution, a fact finally acknowledged by the most conservative Supreme Court in more than a generation. Congress issued its own apology and authorized reparations in 1988, when Ronald Reagan was president.

In this horrific election season of 2018, I wonder how future American governments will atone for the savage malpractice we witness today. Mourners in Pittsburgh bury a pair of brothers with intellectual disabilities, and prepare the grave of a 97-year-old great-grandmother killed by gunfire, along with eight more. A family in Louisville grapples with how to comfort a 12-year-old who watched his grandfather mowed down while stopping to buy poster board for a school project. Rattled journalists get back to the newsroom, now cleared of pipe bombs in padded envelopes, and resume reporting about again being called “enemies of the people” by the President of the United States.

Will it matter that the last week’s dead were murdered only because they were Jewish or African-American? And not Sikh or Muslim as in previous attacks? Will gun laws change and mental health services be funded because the victims were for the most part elderly, and not first graders or high school students, as in previous massacres? Will future racists be deterred because one killer faces the death penalty and another will have hate-crime enhancements added to his sentence? Will it matter that an obscure social media network got taken down for incitement, when others will sprout in its fetid wake? Or that we spent our days in another frenzy of “How Dare You?”-ism, summoning differing rationales for our outrage and the targets of our finger-pointing determined by which cable television network we watch?

Even as we pause this round of spewing and fuming to bury another round of victims, hanging our heads in grief and shame, our leaders have taken no such pause in their war against the Other.

It will matter more to history that on the same day he rushed to greet mourners in Pittsburgh, the President mused about revoking the right conferred by the 14th Amendment that anyone born on U.S. soil is a U.S. citizen. That the U.S. government cut off funding for programs intended to counter violent extremism, including white supremacists operating within the United States. That the Pentagon launched “Operation Faithful Patriot”, deploying at least 5,000 U.S. troops to the border with Mexico, ostensibly to head off a caravan of migrant invaders from Central America. The Secretary of Homeland Security said “every option was on the table” to stop the bedraggled pedestrians, even as she assured her interviewer that U.S. forces had “no intention” of shooting at them — and was overtaken, yet again, by the President’s claim to the contrary. This as toddlers separated from their undocumented parents at the border last summer are still trickling out of modern day internment centers.

The road from Charlottesville cuts through Pittsburgh and Louisville, the Arizona desert and the Rio Grande Valley. It also leads to the ballot box.

We are in an internal war as old as our country itself. Immigrants, refugees and other newcomers (even if they happen to be CEOs), along with members of racial, religious and sexual minorities are told that if they just work harder, study more, shine their shoes a bit brighter, pray more fervently, dispense with ethnic headwear and names, speak English for god’s sake, don’t ask for special favors such as civil rights, and politely hand over their bonsai trees when their government orders them to an internment camp, they will find acceptance. If you are elected President of the United States and you don’t resemble the men in the portraits on the White House walls, then you must display your birth certificate before being allowed to serve the country. Don’t be too strident, too impatient, too Other.

I can’t watch any more funerals. I can’t listen to this President or his explainers. Or to the talking heads on television, even though I long made my living doing just that. I know what the white guy on the panel will claim and can predict the retort from the woman of color and how the anchor will furrow his brow with consternation before we have to go to a commercial. I can’t listen to the frightened migrants in their caravan or the sobbing mourners in Pittsburgh or Louisville. This week’s unwitting extras in a reality show that has gone horribly off the rails. I can’t even listen to the gracious rabbi on NPR explaining what the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society actually does, overwriting the synagogue killer’s libelous Gab posts as she educates listeners about her organization’s courageous practice of assisting refugees worldwide, based on the Jewish people’s history of displacement. She means so well, yet I am afraid of what will show up in her Twitter feed or her mailbox, and hope she has a bodyguard.

I will recover in time to vote — and suspect I am not alone in that. But for now I pause, humbled before an ancient bonsai tree. It sits on a pedestal, having survived for generations, blossoming and being pruned back over the years without ever losing its beauty — or seeking light and soil to set root. It will grow long after this awful campaign season has ended. So, I hope, will we.

Relapsing journalist, midlife rebel, home renovation addict.

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