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Archive for August, 2012|Monthly archive page

Place, Power, and Healing

In Geography/ Spatial Justice, Health Justice on August 18, 2012 at 1:37 AM

It’s been a week and a half, and now that I’m in the Bay Area, I can say this: the trip hasn’t resolved everything. The fiery pain that lights the cervical base of my spine continues to strike at the rarest moments, in the most inopportune times. But the trip has reanimated mere regardless: I’m still exploring and writing.

My interest in geography makes me speculate at possible causes at even the slightest of improvements: there may be environmental factors (humidity, air pressure, presence/absence of contaminants), neuropsychological factors (the mere novelty of navigating new geographies stimulate neural pathways and neurotransmitters), or something that combines or transcends the two (such as needing to leave a toxifying routine and environment in New York). It’s hard to say what plays a leading role.

A curious set of trees by Lake Merritt in Oakland caught my eye. They look intriguingly like neurons, or maybe even veins.

This trip was meant largely to be a trip for health purposes—a way for me to escape a routinization of existence that was keeping me stuck in emotional and spiritual ways. The traveling has reignited an interest in the amazing (his/her)stories embedded in places. By definition, places are spaces imbued with meaning, culture, history, struggle, bloodshed, tears, and resistance. Whether you are beholding a room, a village, a neighborhood, or a city, the image that is reflected on your retinas is that of a materially constructed landscape crafted through human labor. How such built landscapes work in tandem with, or in opposition to, the natural environment is an age-old question and one of interest if we are to examine fundamental questions of our history and humanity.

Striking ol’ tree at Oscar Grant Plaza in Oakland

Like chipping away at a thousand-year-old tree, the nooks and crannies of places (say, historic neighborhoods) reveal the miraculous intricacies that prevail upon the land, the people, and their collective spirit. Even certain specific or general processes like urban development projects and gentrification have difficulty eliminating all the living elements indigenous to a native territory. We can’t (for the most part) eliminate all the mountains or the trees of a natural environment, and regional ecosystems can be incredibly resilient in the face of temporary waves of destruction. That said, while there exists hope for continued resistance for the preservation of places for those who call them home, it is important to acknowledge the challenges that are taking shape in a world brutalized by profit-hungry, oil-guzzling, resource-extracting savagery.

As Paolo Freire once noted, “hope is an ontological necessity.” I believe these words ring truer than ever when we talk about land struggles, for few things shape us more than our environment (not simply the physical environment, but what is there, who is there, and our perceptions of it).  In the end, a colonizer’s struggle to destroy and remodel every square inch of territory into his lustful heart’s desire will be frustrated by the limits of nature itself, as well as by the indigenous history of the land. You can’t, for instance, build a New York in the Sahara (or, at least, not without considerable cost to my knowledge). You also can’t eliminate an entire people from a land without violence (often inhumane levels of bloodshed)—whether we are talking tried-and-true imperial colonization of Asia, Africa, and the Americas, or recent urban colonization efforts of corporate development-led slum removals or gentrification of neighborhoods.

Stop Oakland Police Dept!

Even urban renewal schemes often have to resort to co-optation or intimidation since outright genocide of the sort that was once possible in Amerikka faces a host of complications in a rapid-fire information age. That’s not to dismiss the existence of persistent violence today—it is merely to state that white supremacist colonialism has adapted, and its strategies for colonizing, enslaving, and destroying people of color and the working poor have become more perfidious and nuanced. Additionally, the paramilitary and technological prowess of the modern police state has ensured that “security,” “perimeters,” and “quality of life” crimes remain items of municipal priority, thus curtailing resistance at very early stages of individualized frustration (e.g. graffiti, vandalism, breaking windows or jumping turnstiles).

Armed resistance for the right to housing—the sort once envisioned by militant revolutionary groups, like the Black Panthers—becomes difficult in a landscape dominated by a hegemony of non-violent ideology and a consensus around “safety.” Whether we speak of the urban or the rural, the continental or the local, what’s clear is that while some degree of mass consent and pacification is required, the colonialist-capitalist logic of land use is always predicated on the usurpation of power. It is power that has been stolen, coerced, or otherwise taken from us to build the unequal landscapes that are sought: the wasteful McMansions, the massive spiraling highways (at the expense of mass transit), the luxury condominiums in cities of the homeless.

Anti-gentrification sentiment on wall of a construction site in Capitol Hill, Seattle.

Condos for sale near the CBDs (central business districts) of Oakland (left) and Seattle. August 2012.

Although it’s easy to note the large-scale efforts of capital to reduce places to sites of fetishistic consumption—instead of gathered communes, where people share histories, we see individuals darting past each other through shopping malls, coffee shops, and snapshot-worthy vistas—I also see resistance sprouting every which way. Like weeds sprouting in a manicured lawn, there are some things that simply won’t go away: like the sky, the wind, the mountains, and a faintest breeze of a reminder that people have fought and have won before.

And so, as I continue with this trip down the West Coast, I hope to continue my healing as I am filled by the inspiration of places.

Sick and Unsettled in Seattle

In Chronic Pain, Geography/ Spatial Justice, Multiple Sclerosis on August 13, 2012 at 9:30 PM

Totem pole near Pike Place Market. What history is it meant to preserve? Who made it, and why was it placed there?

After three weeks of being sickened by New York’s heat and humidity, during which time I paced between air-conditioned boxes (rooms, lobbies, subway cars), I was finally able to escape the city entirely. It was a poorly planned trip with little rationale other than the fact that I really wanted to get the fuck out of New York, and the West Coast has long been beckoning me. There’s nothing like a health-threatening condition, with its non-stop pulsating headaches and soul-draining fatigue, to make a trip like this seem so damn urgent.

Seattle seemed like a reasonable first stop given how much of its pervading lore intrigued me: like New York, a unique confluence of histories and cultures, including long-existing indigenous and Southeast Asian communities; culturally “alternative” scenes, as showcased by posters for political happenings and artistic events; and a reinforced reputation for plentiful coffee shops, left-ish circles, and better health care.

left bank books, anarchist bookstore near Pike Place Market

[To be clear, since I don’t want to seem as if I’m promoting the sort of market tourism that many city governments have employed at the expense of their poorest constituents: I don’t, of course, believe in subscribing to stereotypes of cities, good or bad, and I’ve lived in this country long enough to know that each city is a battleground city. So long as racism, poverty, homelessness, and inequality exist, no U.S. city is immune from the coupled terrors of capitalism, imperialism, and war.]

Given my recent travails with MS, I chose to give Seattle—and the August Northwest climate—a try. Yet within a few hours of walking around my body became overheated, and I was feeling dazed. How does MS do this? I could feel the back of my head becoming inflamed, but I couldn’t exactly tell why. The weather here, in fact, was much more walk-friendly than it was in hot-and-humid New York. Whatever the mysterious reason for it (and again, I can’t rule out environmental factors, including the high precipitation here in the Northwest), I went back to my hotel room dazed.

The next day I awoke, feeling much better. Better than I’ve felt in weeks, in fact. I hope to resume the writing that I’ve unfortunately had to stop. Yet this all raises the same questions in my head: what causes these sudden booms and busts of symptoms? To what extent do environmental factors play a role, even when it’s not clear what these “factors” themselves are? And most importantly, what could be done about any of this so as to manage quality of life?


View of Seattle’s Japanese Garden near the Washington Park Arboretum

During my week in Seattle I can say I was reanimated to read, write, explore and reflect. The trip didn’t resolve everything, and the fiery pain that lights the cervical base of my spine continues to strike at the rarest moments, in the most inconvenient times. But my interest in geography makes me conjecture at the possible causes at even the slightest of improvements: there may have been environmental factors (humidity, air pressure, presence/absence of contaminants), neuropsychological factors (the mere novelty of navigating a new geography stimulated neural pathways and neurotransmitters), or something that combines or transcends the two (such as needing to leave a toxifying routine and environment).

There is more to pain that than the study of nerve fibers, just as there is more to pain management than pharmacological treatment. As I continue with my trip down the West Coast, I will continue to be fascinated by the importance of environment and the meaning of place–of home, love, and community–in the context of bodily, psychological, and spiritual healing.

I hope that that this journey helps me gain insight into the spaces of transformative healing.

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