"Do you want to go to a protest on Tuesday? We could get arrested together?"
Reverend Allison emailed me Saturday night in mid-June. An interfaith organization with which she works, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), was planning an act of civil disobedience for Attorney General Jeff Sessions' visit to downtown Los Angeles.
At 9:30 that morning, I climbed onto the roof of my church, thankful for the overcast sky. I had committed to help at our church work party a few weeks before the government openly started separating and imprisoning families at our borders and criminalizing refugees seeking a better life, like my father did 60 years ago when he immigrated from Hungary. I had considered going downtown to an occupy protest, but I chose to be on the roof among an array of brooms and rakes, a leaf blower, and five other church members. Our task was to clear pine needles from the roof.
When I read Reverend Allison's email I wondered: have we reached the point where the choice is to be arrested or be complicit? I had already sent outraged texts to my elected officials who share my outrage. Would the nationwide march be too late? Would any of this make a difference?
On the church roof, the pine needles mixed with clods of dirt into a matted carpet. Each sweep of my broom loosened only bits from the top. It was frustratingly slow work. After numerous superficial swipes, a swath of carpet would suddenly dislodge. Slowly piles formed, and later, someone would shovel the piles into trash bags. After an hour, a blister I did not feel forming broke at the base of my right thumb.
"You should be wearing gloves," someone said, as he tossed me a pair.
My raw skin would be exposed for a week. I joked about my soft librarian hands, embarrassed by my own fragility.
As a single woman estranged from family, I fear being forgotten. It is hard enough for me to ask for rides to the airport. Who could I call for bail and a lift home from jail? I worry about political publicity, being turned into a meme or Breitbart story and bringing down the wrath of trolls on my school administrators and fellow teachers. I emailed Reverend Allison that I would be there to support them, bail her out if she needed, and document with pictures, but I did not want to be arrested.
I stood on the sidewalk with the majority of the protesters, as instructed by the organizers, when the arrests were about to begin. The clergy and laity taking part in the civil disobedience blocked Spring Street in front of the Federal Courthouse. As I watched, the sun overtook the shade. It took 45 minutes to arrest the 25 protestors. Choreographed like a dance, pairs of officers asked each protester to leave, recorded their refusal, helped them stand, cuffed their hands behind their backs, and walked them to the waiting vans. Reverend Allison, third from the last to be arrested, chatted with those seated next to her, at times laughing as if they were waiting for an outdoor summer performance to begin. It was the first time I was a witness to civil disobedience. It made national news. I was relieved to see that sign making, letter writing, and poetry were not my final options. I wondered what would be the tipping point that would have me sitting in the street.
On that Saturday on the roof, with my borrowed gloves, I went back to work. We only had about a quarter of the roof cleared. The broken blister smarted under the band-aid and glove, but I was committed to two more hours and would not shirk my share of work. Instead, I figured out how to get my fingers to grip the handle of the tool so it would not rub the broken skin. I applied body awareness learned in yoga to focus on how to leverage my strength differently to protect my body. I crouched into a low yogi squat, knees near my shoulders and my back straight. From this position I could shimmy the rake under the pipes that ran about two inches off the center of the roof to pull the matted carpet of needles to one of the piles awaiting bagging.
I could not have known that yoga would help me in clearing a roof of pine needles. I could not have know that volunteering to clean pine needles off a roof or witnessing an act of civil disobedience would lead to visiting a man imprisoned by ICE. I may not have believed small acts could matter and may not have bothered driving to Adelanto when I learned I could do this at a training by CLUE. CLUE is the name that the man I visited recognized from watching the news of Reverend Allison and others being arrested, the name that bridged my inadequate Spanish to his inadequate English to give him hope. Without yoga, writing, and an interfaith community, would I have succumbed to the fear that anything I could do is not enough? Would I have been paralyzed by hopelessness into inaction?
When I went to clear the clogged gutters formed by the arched tiles, my fear of heights and the instability of the tiles prevented me from climbing on them. I was grateful no one mocked my fear. I meditated on the work under the roof: gathering food for the Interfaith Food Pantry, evaluating charities to support with tithes and fundraisers, assembling care kits for the homeless and art kits for terminally ill children, and game nights and movie nights that saved me from some of my loneliest days. All of these were possible not because of the power of one individual, but because of the yoking of individuals' talent and faith into a collective body that creates and transforms.
The following Saturday I went with friends to the Families Belong Together March. Compared to the Women's Marches, the increased security and blockades reflected how much more ominous the situation has become since January. Temperatures rose to match our outrage and fear that marching might not stop the horrors we now know are happening in the name of our country. We were sunburned and heart-worn when we entered a pristine alley between the Federal Building and the Detention Center, thinking this was the end of the march. A crowd with craned necks was chanting to the slits of windows of the detention facility on the other side of a wall garden topped by barbed wire. A tapping echoed in the concrete valley in time to the chant and a small glimmer the size of a spoon danced in one of the windows. We sat as if defeated by the knowing. It is not as if we believed we could wait out their release, but how do we just walk away to the freedom to buy lunch, to take the metro home where we can write or not write as our own free will compels?
The more pine needles and dirt we cleared, the more I saw how much still needed clearing. Needles were matted around the AC units, under and between the piles of spare and broken tile. What disaster and expense would have fallen if we continued to ignore this? Driving away, I once again let my brain play the guilt-trip-tape for not writing, of not protesting downtown, for not doing whatever it is I am not doing in that moment.
A few days ago, while in child's pose in a restorative yoga class I pushed away the supports in frustration. Restorative yoga is a class that uses blankets, bolsters, and blocks to hold the body in supported poses for ten to twenty minutes. The science behind it shows this is the time needed to trigger our parasympathetic nervous system, to switch from fight or flight mode into digest and relax mode. It is a challenging yoga practice. I felt ready to be done, to move on, but the class was not done. I tolerated my unsupported child's pose where I knelt with my knees spread wide to make room for my belly to breathe, as I bowed my upper body forward with my forehead on the floor.
I considered the mantra I've carried in my head from a poetry workshop I recently attended in Cape Cod. Marge Piercy instructed us, "When you sit down to write you must believe there is nothing more important you could be doing."
In that moment, child's pose was the most important thing that I could be doing: surrendering to present action, even if there is discomfort, frustration. Marge was not saying that writing is the only important thing we do, but when we do it, we must do it fully. It is equal to and part of cleaning neglected pine needles off roofs, witnessing injustice to expose and reform, and waiting in child's pose to quell the fears that trigger the urge to flee.
Fears—mine of heights, of abandonment, of my own voice and others' of endangerment, of deportation and imprisonment—are real. Exhaustion is real. While I did not choose to get arrested, I did something. Every pine needle I sweep is one less burden on another and on this community. Together we keep the roof from falling under the weight of so many tiny neglected needles.
Lisa Cheby's poems and reviews have appeared in various journals including The Rumpus, The Citron Review, Tidal Basin Review, A cappella Zoo, and TAB, which nominated her poem for a 2015 Pushcart Prize. Additionally, her poems are also found in the anthologies Drawn to Marvel, The Burden of Light, Coiled Serpent, and Full: an anthology of moon poems. Her chapbook, Love Lessons from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Dancing Girl Press) was featured in The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed Series.
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