Witness trees pt.II


I wasn't raised in a place praised for acts of love but through acts of service and care. It's a place not unlike many others in the ways it was behind walls shielding itself from the windy wisdom of the world. You work in ways that let you get by, allow you to get by and make sure you are alright before the rest of the world. You are not necessarily special; you just are alive, and this is what I mean when I say I am not shifting, but the world is moving around me. I learned so much in this age I am in. The period that my dad would've been raising two children. I can't imagine how that must feel, to pause the attention of your own growth and place your dragging heart on the lives you are now in charge of. I give thanks to the sun for putting his shadow on me regardless of the traumatic points, because I recognize that life is traumatic. You will inevitably be mistreated or taken advantage of. People can be so evil and in that same breath, so can you. You will be crushed at some point along your ascension to adulthood. But every day is a new chance to find the answers if you find the energy you can be witness to so so much.

I met up with my dad a week or so ago I hadn't seen or spoken to him in months, he kind of floats around and forgets to come back down. I was excited to tell him about the witness trees, I thought maybe he’d get a kick out of that. We met up at Mark’s Hot Dogs and got chocolate malts. We used to come here a lot when I was coming up. It’s a landmark, An institution in this town; the building is half dome-shaped, painted bright orange, and is tucked in the folds of an area that was much more open. It’s been here through his youth and my youth and countless others. To me, perseverance is defined by who or what you can outlast.

My dad got a Chili Dog and burnt his tongue on the first bite, "ow! Mother fucker!" he slammed it down, and I handed him his shake, "Dad! Are you listening?" "yeah, whatsup? A witness tree or some shit?" I was slightly annoyed by that, but let it slide, "yea, they are these trees that are around when something fucked up happens in the past...well I guess it could be something really good too, but anyway they are still alive even though the event is done, and they are unmoved, but affected the situation maybe in some way and are affected by it" he tests his chilli dog again, "oh ok like Marks?" I thought for a second, "naw because marks hot dogs isn't alive" he gave me this side-eye smirk given when he thinks he got you, it's his most disarming trait, "well why not? Who’s to say what defines living. This place witnessed me getting nasty with many people in this exact parking spot" I shook my head in slight disgust as his smirk turned to a full belly laugh, "dad." he continued, "I’m just saying it’s as alive as anything else is here. This place is changing and has changed and threatens to change those things in it, good or bad, whatever that means, but Marks is still the same ‘ol place as its always been give or take a couple slight things and these walls tell stories. They give me a clear line to my own past as much as any fuckin tree" I pause and look around. The menu sign here I notice has a familiar signature in the bottom corner it was hand-painted by Rey Giese who was a sign painter who at one point single-handedly hand-lettered every business in a 5 block radius of downtown San Jose. He passed a while back still painting signs into his late 90’s and some of his signs are still around town outlasting even the people who paid to have them done. I see them everywhere, and I take notice. It’s just ephemera it's meaningless’ to most it only adds to the scenery, but to me, it sparks memory and intrigue. I remember the witness tree article stating that the specialness of these trees are ultimately unimportant to most people, but still hold value to the few who care. That's how it is though, no one matters except the ones who care. "Damn I guess you're right" I submit to his response, and he looks like a giddy child proving his smart ass son wrong. "Yep! Right there in that parking spot, I was getting busy, could've been your brother or sister wasted on the napkin’" "dad!" We are collective testimony whether we like it or not.

My dad's been living alone for a few years now. He stays in a tiny studio behind a larger home. The same back house that my mom, my brother and I used to stay at when our house would catch fire for months at a time, prone to flame. I kind of hate going over there and remembering that space as a temporary satellite when the heat got to be too much. It's packed, always dark and full of all kinds of dad shit. He's got his ride in the pathway to his door, he steady has oil in a pan from ground beef resting on the stove, a big hood rich flat-screen resting in a corner and a big bed in the living room where he sleeps. He mostly sits though since his hip surgery. He is supposed to keep his legs at a right angle during recovery. Last time we hung out, I drove him to Walmart, and he told me that he is sometimes embarrassed to show people his house. I assumed it was because the place was often dirty, but he surprised me by saying "I have been working since I was 15 and what do I have to show for my years of labor"? I felt really sad for him at that moment, I absorbed it and swallowed back a heavy sigh. He nonchalantly changed the subject to look at a girls ass walking by, I tried to tell him to chill, but he ignored me. He bought me a $150 flat screen and an extra one for my little brother who "will need one when he stays over," he said. I see him too often spend money in place of affection, in place of genuine love. I lightly package it as his 'Love Language,' his 'Love Language' is commerce. The satisfaction of purchasing is immediate, and the work put in to show his affection towards us is minimal. Who has the energy for vulnerability when survival got you by the balls. It's very telling, the effects of capitalism on our love and on his mental health. Specifically being where we be, where the middle class has disappeared, and all worth in oneself is hard to find. Even the dignity of wage work is degraded to working poor. I noticed most of my peer's stress comes from money, it informs all other aspects of our lives, even when we don’t want it to. He doesn't want people to come over because he feels he should have so much more to show for working all his life. He has become less able-bodied and been complaining about how he can't get any support from all the people he's helped over the years, including his job which he is being forced to retire from early. But he is holding on to it as long as he can because it may not be enough to support him the rest of his life. He is banking on the phantom checks from disability, injury settlements, and retirement. He feels indebted to his job, and so he toughs it out and winces through every motion at work. When we think of our persevering family, we think, 'wow, how strong they were,' not how soft they were. It would be nice if they could be remembered not for how long they held out, but for how deep their compassion and emotional intelligence. He's starting to realize that the world sees anyone who isn't white, able-bodied, young, healthy, thin or mentally stable as being disposable. Another way in which capitalism plagues him and me through it all. I try to remind him he owes them nothing and himself everything. He nodded and told me about all the ways he's going to spend his money and get out of debt and live happily on a ranch as we passed through the 10-mile radius that he has been entrapped by his whole life. He told me he doesn't want us, my brother and me to interfere with his life; that's why he doesn't answer when we call or text. He is like, "if it works out, we can hang, but otherwise, I don't want y'all bothering me in my space." I went home after and he did the same.

How a tree adapts to surroundings tells a lot about the roots, how deep they go, and how strong they are. You feel indebted to roots so much that you feel nothing and everything for them. Lynda Mapes was quoted in an article about Witness trees saying, "We are not separate from nature, we are of it, and in it, and we need an ethical framework to match. We need a nourishing mutualism that embeds us in creation, working with one another in collaboration with nature to sustain us in our common home." she studied gargantuan Oaks in Northern California and how they adapted to the changes in violent and inconsistent surroundings. The mutualism that is needed to be socially well urges, requires, demands us to think dialectically to change what is, to come to a logical solution to dig our heels in let our roots grow and for no reason other than to experience the world as is, forgive and grow toward the light. I Think of the transition from seed to tree and what it is to be the offspring of another. Like an ivy transmission signaling growth as it creepy crawls up your trunk, it suffocates not because it means to, not because it wants to, because it needs you. I fear that I am sentenced to live as most men, a metaphor unrealized. To live and to learn too late.

When I asked him to come to get lunch with me at Mark’s Hot Dogs, I invited him the way he asks me. I texted, "what're you doing today"? He said, "Nothing, why." I followed with, "nothing I was thinking of going to Mark’s today for lunch around 2," and he said, "ok" that was an unspoken/spoken confirmation for us, neither of us out on the ledge. He showed up, I knew he would because I speak his language too, it relies mostly on intuition or ''mind-reading" or careful observation. He showed up very early so he could be viewed casual like, "yea I had a few things to do and decided to check it out" never specifically being affirming, but in code affirming and loving nonetheless. I unsurprisingly did the same I cam early and sat at a nearby coffee shop and read alone for two hours before the lunch and strolled over casually. I saw him sitting outside as I approached, so I smiled and sat beside him as he teased two girls sitting next to him, somehow they found it charming. As he ate and gulped a man walked by and looked at his food, my dad stopped eating and glared at this fool and looked back at me pausing whatever bullshit he was talking about to say, "what the fuck is he looking at"?! I laughed and realized that at 31 years old I now know where my pet peeve of people looking at my food comes from. Somehow I had never recognized this. After my sojourn into witness trees with him, he unexpectedly started spouting off about black lives matter, as if he's been holding in some shit he needs to work through and no one else will listen. He went on this internalized anti-blackness rant while he sipped his shake. He started talking about current events in the news. It was astonishing to me having a visual representation of assimilation over generations sitting right in front of me sitting outside of a halved orange slice hot dog joint/landmark. He's started to just go along with these things that oppress him and even defend his enemies. I was getting angry at him, so I started arguing why the logic behind framing people as 'bad' or 'thugs' was counterproductive to our ‘freedom.’ I told him that respectability politics don’t mean shit. I tried to remind him that his dope sales allowed me to go on field trips and kept powdered milk out of my mouth. I think that the constant, purposeful strain and desperation subjected to marginalized people in the U.S. leads them to disassociate, it leads to disembodiment. You no longer feel in control of the world; it’s just shifting all around you. You begin to think of yourself as separate from the rest of the crop, and you can't see the forest for the trees, you beg to notice how different you are from one another and disregard similarities that connect you. I told him that regardless of people's stories, murder is not EVER the answer to these situations occurring. The militarization of our police is tragic, and the acception of it is disheartening to unknown ends. He was all like, "People are dumb as hell, even when they’re smart" I had to laugh at that genius statement. We eventually reached a point in the conversation where he got upset that we identify as black because we are mixed and apparently have a choice. He said matter of factly, "I've tried so hard for us to cling to the brown side more because it's not safe for us black here." He said he wishes we wouldn't consider ourselves black. I was like, "DAD. You are black, your skin doesn't lie, and you got that black dad angry face right now, and we are black by obvious association." I looked at him and saw that he was doing some real work with processing that equation in his head. Which skin tone should I be to navigate 'safeness'? To have to compartmentalize your identity so much that you disallow yourself to just be the multifaceted and beautiful person you were born to be. It hit me that he answered his own fears of his own blackness through us/me. When he said that and I wasn’t angry anymore, I also realized then as I sat outside sweating with my dad sitting eating a chili dog that we were really processing together and that I wasn't angry I was doing what we have always done, and that was Mislabel our sadness for anger. I looked at him and smiled and was just like, wow, he navigates his life out of fear. Fear for us and of his past. That's a lot, I wonder if something about this place initiated that conversation. I turned to say something about how I appreciated him and before I could say anything, he farted and wafted it at me with tears in his eyes, laughing so hard.

We got up and walked to his car and decided to go cruising because he had no plans for the day and because his fart was a great segue to leave. I suggested picking up my brother because we were only a bit away from where he stays. So we swooped him and decided to cruise over our old neighborhood. "What you got on?" my dad said to my brother who was wearing nothing particularly offensive, but maybe lookin’ a bit to hood for my dad's patience. My brother shook his head in silence. He's always told me to 'play the game' since I was young. Once while speeding on the way down 4th street do see my grandma who was in the hospital he was pulled over by some cops, and I remember watching from the passenger seat as my dad's whole body stiffened and recoiled. Presenting himself in the stillest most non-threatening way a 265 pound 6,1" Blackman could. His voice raised an octave as he over-annunciated every 'yes sir' and 'I'm sorry' to the police officer. He tried to explain that he was in a hurry to see his mother, who was just sent to the hospital, which produced no urgency in the officer. As we finally left 30 minutes after being pulled over, my dad was quiet for the rest of the drive. He would typically have Tower of Power or The Commodores, ‘ZOOM’ blasting on the stereo with Windows down and slouched in his seat relaxed, but I could tell he was somewhat emasculated. We drove quietly than as we got closer to the hospital he began to explain to me how to survive around police. "Dad remember when you got pulled over that one time on the way to see grandma," my brother yelled from the backseat with the same side-eye smirk my dad had used earlier. I looked at him through the side mirror and made 'fuck you' face because I knew it could really polarize the situation, but my brother needed to nudge him back. He responded less annoyed as I thought saying, "Fool you need to know how to 'play the game' always be subservient and just go with it even if you are right so you can get out of there and as far away from them as you can." I don't think he realized that in that situation years ago he had taught us how we would later dodge bosses and police and all authority figures in the future. He was ultimately telling me that their comfort is above all the most important thing to our survival. That's how you 'play the game,' don't make any police uncomfortable because they are volatile and unpredictable. I wonder how many white kids have conversations about survival from oppressive forces like police with their parents. I learned how to navigate police violence before I learned how to tie my shoes. That isn't something that should happen. I mean in all honestly, I did learn to tie my shoes pretty late though. My brother nodded and patted my dad’s shoulder and just stared out of the back window in silence. I could tell we were nearing our old house.

I read the other day about this service offered. When you die, you can have this business cremate you and add your ash to seed and become a biodegradable pod to be planted, and your remains grow as a tree. I believe you have a choice of the tree but that I am unsure of ‘The ultimate vigil’ the ad said. Would I want to be memorialized that way? I thought to myself, could I possibly become the witness tree that I have always lived as. A witness tree is silent; it is a touchable, tangible thing that carries us to an impalpable place. This is how the trees affect the world, reminding us that our actions live on in many things. I see the way my brother and my dad look at me in ways that tell them of times they wish were absent from history. If these trees could speak honestly, they would talk of many regretful things. As witness trees, we are symbols. Symbols define the space between words, the dash, the negative space, the short breath before the next statement. Symbols flesh out the parts we need represented in another manner. Symbols are how we, as people, establish meaning, develop views, and communicate. It gives context to the unknown, and through that lens, we communicate accordingly. The need for us symbolize how unprocessed hurt or confusion regurgitates itself later. We stand as a metaphor, as we search for reasons where there are none.

Richard Gutierrez