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These days from home, I’ve been watching the bees.
Just outside the kitchen window of our ground floor suite, a giant rosemary bush flowers. Bees are constantly buzzing on and around its branches, humming happily, occasionally bumping into the window and each other before floating away. As I’ve acclimatized to the slower-paced, no-longer-strange days of COVID-19, I’ve noticed the green and growing world with new acuity. The forced reset of social distancing measures has slowed me down. Rendered everyday life to quiet companionship, familiar rhythms, noticing. The magnificence of the cherry blossom tree and its rain of pink petals. The Easter-bright tulips practicing resurrection. The bees, thick with pollen, vibrating with the music of movement.
These are paradoxical days, containing an abundance of stillness and movement both. Some at home, giving and receiving care. Some in the streets, speaking truth to power once again that Black Lives Matter. I notice who’s saying so for the first time and wonder if this is a turning point, if White folks will actually reckon with Whiteness, if they will be willing to expose what Austin Channing Brown describes as “the ugliness of racism buried in the psyche and ingrained in the heart.” Will they actually do the work? Have they tuned in, are they finally noticing? I wonder if the Twitter-termed covidapocalypse has focused attention in a rare moment of convergence, how the disruption of manufactured certainty has affected everyone—enough, even, to pry open White complacency and let life-giving possibilities take fuller shape.
A Taiwanese-Canadian friend of mine was recently subjected to a racist assault. When it happened, she was walking home while listening to a podcast about anti-Asian racism during COVID. She comes over later, and we mount the steps to the deck where the laundry line sags over the potato patch. From six feet apart, we feed each other with conversation, fortify ourselves with noodle soup in the cool evening crisp of spring. The garden is quiet; the bees have gone to bed. As the light fades, we talk about the emotional toll of White fragility and White privilege, the frustrating rhetoric of “reverse racism,” about unlearning civility and silence, about the long-ass tiring fight to get our (mostly White) churches to address racial justice.
Crisis times are truth-telling times. When I look around and notice, I see how the pandemic has laid bare institutional and structural cruelty, unearthed personal biases and the ongoing impacts of the racist and colonial systems we inhabit, compounded inequities in housing, policing, food security that have long gnawed away Black and Indigenous dignity and the right to live. And it awoke a lot of us East Asian folks to the reality of White supremacist society with politeness peeled away, the complicity we learn so young, the impossible bargain of conditional belonging.
One of the many lessons I’ve learned from Black and Indigenous friends, Elders, and movement leaders is that navigating apocalyptic conditions—be it a pandemic, climate catastrophe, or the general dystopia of late capitalism—means turning to those who have already experienced a form of apocalypse and survived. In their podcast How to Survive the End of the World, adrienne maree brown and Autumn Brown talk about the Black birthright of resilience and vision, which not only necessitates that Black experience be central to any justice movement but to imagining new worlds. Freer futures. I think of the Indigenous women and femmes I know whose very existence, from winging eyeliner to protecting the land, is a death-defying act. But this learning doesn’t stop with communities of people. Robin Wall Kimmerer reminds us that we can learn from non-humans too, the living beings with intelligences much older than ours, which are themselves survivors under siege by death-dealing systems and corporate hubris. The trees and their vast underground network that protects the vulnerable, nourishes the sick, and communicates information for the good of the community. The bees, oracles of transformation, with their sure and slow presence, their collective dedication. Their loyalty to plants and to place. Dancing to point their kin towards nectar. It’s motion inherent, intuition beyond language. Bee-ing.
Apparently, there exists an old European rural tradition called the “telling of the bees” which I find fascinating. Keepers would tell the bees of deaths in the family so that they could share in the mourning, as well as important events like births, marriages, and long absences. The custom may have evolved from Celtic mythology which, like ancient Egypt, saw bees as sacred messengers between the worlds of the living and the dead. Bees were linked to royalty and divinity, an association perhaps most obviously embraced by “Queen Bey” Beyoncé Knowles, and also, inextricably, with grief: in a ritual text called the “Salt Magical Papyrus,” bees originate from the tears of Ra, ancient Egypt’s Creator God. It seems a fitting connection in an era of disappearing bees and collapsing colonies, quiet soothsayers telling the true cost of industrialized agriculture and insatiable consumption. Some studies show how particular pesticides affect bee memory, resulting in their failure to return to the hive. How has Whiteness tried its best to make you forget where you came from? Our relationship with bees shows the importance of mourning, remembering, mobilizing. Naming the lost.
I write this from Bowen Island, where my partner and I are house-and-garden-sitting for a family friend. The garden is a sprawling thing of beauty: patches of pink and purple rhododendron bushes, climbing passion flowers, wee sprouting lettuce and carrots, flowering wild strawberries weaving through it all. The peonies are just starting to open, gorgeous and unashamed as drag queens with colours so bright they could make Marsha P. Johnson’s crown, and the bees are feeling it. Their fuzzy bodies crowd the stamens, five or more to a single blossom, and gyrate with joy. Maybe they’re having a Pride party. The house is many-windowed, and bees often get stuck inside, buzzing futilely against the glass until we nudge them into a jar and release them back outside, infinite tenderness our only available apology. In the evening, I walk through the flowers listening to the bees’ decrescendoing hum. I lean close to the peonies and the teeming labyrinth of petals and say their names: George Floyd. Regis Korchinski-Paquet. Andrew Loku. Sandra Bland. Here in the garden, I’m mourning with the bees and unlearning silence. It’s a kind of prayer.
One of the dangerous myths constituting White supremacy is its inevitability. White supremacy doesn’t just uphold police brutality and mass incarceration, migrant detention and colonial extraction on Native land; it’s death-dealing and ordinary and wants to last forever. It’s the air we breathe, the unquestioned default, a well-oiled machine. Nowhere is safe—our churches, non-profits, our own consciousnesses are suspect to its poison. But when I feel that weight too heavily to fly or dance, I remind myself that all machines break one day. I pull my people close. I think of the 2000-year-old honey from Egyptian tombs, and I remember to work like the bees, trusting in kairos time. I think of the wellspring of wisdom and resistance undergirding communities of colour, of the lineage of freedom fighters like Harriet and Assata and Yuri and Grace. I think of the steady buzz of the bees under threat of extinction, nurturing new life and humming onwards and dancing devoted in their slow, endless work of remaking the world.
Céline Chuang (she/her) is a diasporic settler from Treaty 7 territory, with a familial migration story that crosses water four times in three generations. She writes, organizes, gardens, and creates on unceded Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh territory (Vancouver, Canada). Twitter: @celinechuang
"On bee-ing free: racial justice, surviving apocalypse, and paying attention" was originally published in The Waking on June 25, 2020.
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