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The Lilith Blog 1 of 3

January 13, 2020 mada anne

Feminist Farming: Learning Teshuvah from the Earth

13984398011106We dig a trough for garlic, bury the seed, and I invite the volunteers working alongside me to bless the garden bed. We often bless our work with a simple prayer that the people who eat this food are nourished by it, and that through our hands we can help heal the land we are on. I say a Shehechiyanu under my breath every time someone new joins me in this.

I farm on twice-stolen land in the Central District of Seattle, Washington, unceded Coast Salish territory. I am a white Jewish woman, and I farm with a white-led nonprofit. And often well-meaning white workers from Amazon and Microsoft come to the small parking-strip-turned-garden-beds that we call a farm, and it is my role to slow everyone down to the pace of the plants, and to be like the plants: to listen, to get to know a place by being shaped by its soil.

At the beginning of each set of community gardening hours, I tell the parts of the story of the Central District that I know. About how Black and Jewish people were redlined to this area. About how the Jews left in their own white flight. About how developers are eating up the land like they won’t ever get enough. I ask volunteers to be sensitive to the fact that people’s lives have been turned upside down, to walk with humility. I explain that we are doing our gardening inside of a wound, and if they can’t fully understand, that’s okay, but to respect that there’s a painful process going on. And that to the people who live here, some of us white folks, whether we like it or not, are the faces and bodies of that process.

I’m never fully satisfied telling this story or making this ask: from this white body, from this white organization. It never quite feels like enough to let people know that we’re not supposed to be here in the first place. Shouldn’t we leave? Urban farms offer vegetables and land connection, but also contribute to the process of gentrification. How can I make our presence — which has already happened — less harmful? So much of my feminist practice — which includes striving toward antiracism — is imperfect in this way; it is an attempt toward wellness while rooted in sick soil. 

I took this job with a hope that a Black farmer from the neighborhood would be excited about the garden, need work, and take over the position. The organization I worked for claimed to want to give the land back to community, and I agreed to the contract only because I saw myself as a willing bridge toward — hopefully — living into that claim.

Eventually, a farmer who’s Black and lives nearby took over my position, and it eased tensions a bit in the neighborhood. But I still feel and think about the texture of contradiction. How, to be a bridge inside a territory torn by centuries of racialized pain, is to make peace with seeming rickety, but staying with tension, suspended, and ready to hold what comes your way.

Feminism, Judaism, and the wisdom of the land give me something to hold onto when I am destabilized by the effort of confronting these contradictions. Specifically, I’ve been exploring the concept of teshuvah: returning my (our) soul to its right shape, going back and making things right the best I can, and forgiving myself for all that’s torn that I can’t, for one reason or another, mend. Sometimes I am so overwhelmed by the size of the pain, I don’t know where to begin to mend it. 

Creativity — zines, poems, ritual, art-space, community — has been the force I’ve tapped into over and over again to absorb the pain of contradiction, of never quite getting it right. Having principles to return to and hold me while I figure out how to be who I think this world needs me to be is an incredible grounding force. Creativity is the outlet for my shame: it allows my stuckness and fear a place of generative motion so I can take right action and be brave in my life. Alongside, but not separate from my Jewish practice, I am guided by my feminist practice, which is spiritual, too. There have been times when I’ve been overwhelmed by the grief of how much soil people have killed, or how we won’t stop, or the sexual comments and harassment at work wear down my will and I don’t know how to show up to life anymore. Feminist history tells me I am not the first person to feel that feeling: feminism, like Judaism, is a lineage for me. It is a creative practice to come up with rituals and ways of being that make staying on earth in the midst of the heartache possible, and maybe even joyful. 

What’s true is that I can’t be fully “clean” or “pure” in a world full of pain and harm. I don’t want to hurt anyone, and I am inevitably a willing and unwilling participant in systems of harm. It’s a set-up. My task is to open my heart and hands to the wound, despite my fear, and ask it what happened and what it needs. Then, to share this practice with others. I did not create the pain, and I am part of it now. What does that mean? What do I do? What is it actually asking of me?

We can have a healing impact by slowing down and learning from the earth. The earth is the keeper of our history. From farming and learning the history of the land, I gain more and more skill in the art of repair, in teshuvah–returning my (our) soul to its wholeness. The process of this return doesn’t mean avoiding all pain but, rather, moving toward it. This includes learning to navigate difficulty, learning to tolerate our own discomfort, giving resources back to Black and Indigenous communities, practicing listening without waiting to speak, and tending the wound despite the mess. This is as necessary for the soil as it is for all of our relationships. 

I believe the answer for me — and for lots of other people who are kept safe by whiteness but who also carry trauma and oppressed identities — is to grow the capacity to hold tension without being incapacitated by it. To understand our part in the story; that we have a role and we can change it, and to use our agency to be courageous when we see people with power committing injustice. 

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mads lives on unceded Coast Salish land. She is a grief worker and guide who loves to write and spend time in water.

 

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.