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Our Lady of the Deep Root

A love letter to a wife who has found a new way to live on

Rabia,

Are you still with us? I hate starting these things. But you know me. I’ll stick with it until the nerves die or I do. Today, I’m writing from beneath your tree. I’ve been spending so much time in the kin harness lately that I’m a bit slow coming back to language. But I thought it’d be nice to return to the first form we shared.

Nostalgia does strange things to us. I hope kin will forgive me the barbarity of these pages. Sorry, I’m lost again, but you know my mind. I’m afraid the time in the deep treeness has only made things worse. I’m only more attuned to the complexity now and back in my body; it’s hard to hold it all. I remember taking one of those Buzzfeed quizzes as a kid to figure out what sort of mind I had. I got a forest. Figures. It’s crazy what memories some pages and a little muscle memory can drudge up.

As a young man with a green thumb, the greatest ambition I could have formed was moving to a legal state, going to school for horticulture, and working for an industrial grow operation. There was nothing of poetry or of leadership in my head, just green and — well, greenbacks. Forgive the pun, dear, words were always your thing, not mine. I never did make it out of Indiana and halfway through my junior year at IU, my dorm room grow got turned over and I was entered into the system.

I’m thinking now of one of the first pen pal letters you wrote me back when I was locked up. You challenged me to consider the ways in which I held myself, and how the experience of being inside was changing that. I finished the letter in a rush and resolved not only to meet you in person one day, but to do so as an altogether better-held man.

Our correspondence grew through your gifts of four books. The first was Malcolm X’s autobiography, which I read over and over until I’d practically memorized it and the pages started to tatter. The transformative power unlocked by the man’s earnestness and intellect and hunger for truth was breathtaking. While I came to idolize Malcolm, his light felt inaccessible. He was too great for me to see myself in him. So when you started telling me about Reggie Betts and his journey — imprisoned for 8 years for a carjacking, then going on to become a published poet and a Yale-trained Lawyer fighting for reforms in our justice system — It was an enormous relief. He was a more tangible hero.

Your gifts of his first collection, Shahid Reads His Own Palm, and The Collected Rumi made me fall in love with poetry. While I didn’t think I could ever write the way they did, their works opened a mysterious channel in me of aesthetic sensibility that would set me on the search for my own medium of expression.

The fourth book you gifted me helped me find that medium. It was Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, in which she explored our relationship to plants and what they had to teach us through the lens of indigenous wisdom. Something in my brain detonated when she proposed personal pronouns for nature: the singular “ki” and “kin” in the plural.

I don’t know if it was just the Rumi talking, but I felt the truth in that. Plants demanded that respect. Needless to say, reading that book completely changed the way I looked at my green thumb. I began thinking much more about the relationships between plant and animal life and the networks beneath our feet. Having watched you teach for years now, something tells me you knew what this sequencing would do inside me.

So I started moving differently. I stopped feeling so sorry for myself and then I started looking around to figure out how I could tap in to those around me. I started working on credits towards my degree. With your encouragement and advice I was able to convince the warden to let me start a gardening program on the yard. The relationships and the learning that happened through that were an invaluable gift — one that you helped me give myself and the other brothers on the inside.

Then in 2020 just a few months short of my scheduled release, COVID-19 broke out and it hit Pendleton hard. I woke up one day feeling a little under the weather and before I knew it my lungs were filling up with fluid and I had to be quarantined. I woke up what I thought was a week later in the hospital intubated. There was a nurse holding an iPhone in my face. My mom was on FaceTime telling me how in fact it had been six weeks, and that you were working on getting the rest of my sentence commuted so that I could probably go home once I recovered. I remember in that moment not really being able to talk, I lifted my arm asking for a pen and saw that I was still cuffed. I started laughing around my respirator until pain and sense taught me better. All I had to do was stay alive and I’d be free. Nature and my guardian angel had accelerated my second chance and I wasn’t taking a moment of it for granted.

As soon as I was declared COVID-free and released, I was on a mission. I’m sorry I waited so long to respond to that first letter you sent to my mom’s house. It’s not that I wasn’t grateful — it’s just I was waiting on my readmission letter from IU. The day I got it I scared my mom half to death by erupting off a kitchen stool into a Tiger Woods fist pump and then dashing up the stairs to write to you and ask: Can we meet?

I had been too scared to ever ask you to send a photo, as much because I was terrified I might creep you out as because our bond was one of the mind, and I didn’t wanna pollute it. I didn’t need to know what you look like. Besides, pictures of loved ones, especially women, develop a weird sort of magnetism on the inside and I didn’t want to find out what I would do if someone tried taking it from me.

I can remember the day we scheduled to meet over coffee. I was so nervous I showed up two hours early and sat on the steps of the courthouse halfway thumbing through a textbook while surreptitiously scanning every face for a hint of…your words, I guess? As though I might recognize the rhythm of your prose in a voice or a gait.

So I wasn’t looking in the right direction when you walked straight up to me and said my name. Scared me so much I nearly fell out. Once I’d recovered, and turned to face you, I fell in truth, just not physically.

The next half hour was incredible. We reminisced on our correspondence as we walked down to the coffee shop and you told me how proud you were of me. I busted out into tears trying to tell you how grateful I felt for your friendship, all the while telling myself to shove my little crush to the back of mind and be in the moment with you.

The battery that your regard put in my back must have been a fusion engine, because over the course of the next two semesters, I made the dean’s list, got back my scholarship and then some, and won an award for my study on contemplative practices and the forms of consciousness produced by the experience of incarceration.

In the years that followed, we supported one another’s work. I would lend my voice to your legal reform work and you were right there cheering me on at graduation. I googled you one day and discovered that you were not only a lioness of a defense lawyer, but a gorgeous poet in your own right. I’d read your work, but feign ignorance in person. I wanted you to invite me in.

Part of me lamented the way I thought you saw me: a sweet kid, and, increasingly, a favorite nephew. It rankled so much that as I moved from Bloomington to Boston in 2027 to pursue doctorate work in plant cognition, I resolved to distance myself a bit until I could put those feelings to rest.

I threw myself into coursework and research, seeking ways to combine my twinned obsessions: the study of consciousness and the life of plants. Moving through the interdisciplinary labs at MIT, I was verging on a breakthrough in my tree-brain interface when you called and asked if I could introduce you at an award ceremony at the former Folsom State Prison in California. All your work had led to the drawdown of the US prison population to 20% of its 2020 levels. I was thrilled for you and honored…and scared. We’d been in contact on and off, but I hadn’t seen you since swearing off my affections, and I had spent the time since avoiding them, not dealing with them.

Anyhow, I wanted to make you something to commemorate the occasion…and my love for you. So I hit on the idea of testing my interface by splicing one perfect memory of you into a seed pod. It took weeks of manic, mind-breaking work, but I got a prototype to sprout just in time. I packed in a rush and wrote my speech on the plane, babying the little shoot all the way.

We met for a celebratory dinner the night before the event and you were in your element. Friends had flown in from all over the globe to see this and as overjoyed as my heart was to see you so praised, I was sweating bullets all night. At the end of the night, I mumbled something about having work to show you and you invited me back to your hotel. I laid out the experiment, connected one set of electrodes to its root tips, and placed the other set on your temples.

I was looking down at my hands when I heard you gasp, and I turned to you in a panic just in time to see the first tears fall from your eyes. I’d messed something up, gotten the voltage wrong and hurt you somehow. I tore those electrodes off your head and begged you to respond. After a moment you grabbed my hand and reassured me that you were OK despite the perplexed look on your face. Still terrified, I asked you what you felt. I didn’t really know whether it would work. I’d only tested the retrieval process on myself and that was with a smaller test memory. I hadn’t expected it to go wrong. You asked me to fetch you some tissues and thanked me for the gift.

The memory that I had inscribed was my own of your face that first time we met in person. And it had worked! What I had not accounted for was the fidelity with which all of the feelings I had developed for you in between leaked through in the work. Nothing happened that night but you asked me to leave the seedling with you. I didn’t know it yet, but everything between us would change over the course of that weekend.

I realized that by some magic you had lost your ability to see me as that same boy you had met all those years ago. My gambit, improbably, had worked, and slowly the 10 year age difference between us started to thaw. Introducing you at the awards ceremony was one of the proudest moments of my life and that night at the after-party you told me everything that you had found in the seed and we kissed for the first time.

Over the next several months we talked nearly every day and you visited me in Boston several times. We were both deep in the throes of our respective projects: my dissertation and your impending book release. During this first honeymoon phase, I started telling you about my mad idea to convert all the former prisons into monasteries and to continue my experiments in plant cognition with donated memories from other formerly incarcerated people. In the way of young couples, I infected you with this dream just as you had infected me with a dream of prison abolition.

At your book launch party that winter, you introduced me as a failed pot farmer…and the love of your life. We were wed the following May, just a few weeks shy of my graduation. Over the next 17 years, we built both of our mad dreams and our homes in one another.

And then the world shattered us. Just as one illness freed me, another took you from me. Late stage Pancreatic cancer. I was bereft. In my desperation I tried forcing you to record as many memories as possible to go into your tree in between our crossing the globe hunting the most advanced treatments. This caused a lot of tension between us. One day you turned to me and yelled: Q, you have to let me go or you will miss my passing.

I was so mad at you. I thought you’d given up. As I cast about our library for words to turn on you, to keep you fighting, I was stopped cold by these lines from your namesake:

O my Lord,

if I worship you

from fear of hell, burn me in hell.

If I worship you

from hope of Paradise, bar me from its gates.

But if I worship you

for yourself alone, grant me then the beauty of your Face.

That was some cold ass comfort, but I chilled out a little after that. I settled by your side and just held you while the cancer burned its way through you. We didn’t have long.

Grief, that supreme convulsion of the soul, tore out of me and I lost the will to do anything but submerge myself in ki, your tree. I’d spend whole REM cycles down in that harness. After some initial scholarly curiosity, my adepts got very concerned for me. Eventually one of them came with a hatchet and threatened to hack me out of its roots.

I don’t know if I can think of it as healing, but the shock of your loss and all that time in the deep treeness began changing me.

In some ways I’ve only now forgiven you for dying. I’ve kept on in your wake stewarding your work. It’s in good hands now. I’m ready to come find you.

I think I’ve done ok. Through it all, being inside, getting out, meeting you, losing you, I have held to that promise and the world held me back. I am a well held man in my posture (as you loved to point out), by friends, by kin, by acclaim, and, at times, in my own regard…but never so well as by you.

Love,

Q

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