Wednesday, June 23, 2010

In which I finally address the oil spill

Update: Authorities are reporting that a boat captain in charge of helping clean up the oil spill at Gulf Shores has shot and killed himself. The scope of this tragedy, and the depth of the sadness and desperation it has induced in the people who thrive on the waters of the Gulf, cannot be expressed in words. I tried, but my words don't even come close. My thoughts and prayers are with everyone on the coast. All the way from New York, my heart is constantly in the South.

A few weeks ago, I was riding the train from Brooklyn to Manhattan when I discovered those first photos of birds covered in oil on someone's Twitter. Until that moment, the oil spill had just seemed sort of unreal to me, and then suddenly it hit me, all at once, and I started crying. The whole ride home, I was either crying or stewing in outrage, feeling smaller and smaller by the second, unsure of what I could possibly do - if anything - to counteract the largest human error yet seen in my lifetime.

 Anti-BP graffiti near my apartment in East Harlem

So I did the only thing I know how when I'm seriously impacted by something. I wrote about it. I wrote a really long, really angry poem, and I went home and for several nights recorded myself reading it, in various states of undress and makeup and lighting and all kinds of crazy things. I ended up not being happy with the results, because what I had written - while raw and very true to how I felt in those moments - was not something I wanted to publicly and permanently attach my name to. It was too violent and hateful.

So I re-wrote it, trying really hard to focus my sadness and anger into a different channel, where I re-visited my childhood memories of the Gulf and tried to express as best I could how the people on the coast must feel right now. Even though I don't live down there, a big part of me does, because a lot of my fondest memories growing up center on that culture. It breaks my heart to know that it has been treated so haphazardly.

Anyway, I wrote an essay and recorded myself reading it. Below, the full text of the essay and my recording. This also marks the first time I've put my actual voice on my blog (aside from various videos I've posted). Please read and/or listen, and don't forget you have a voice too. Please donate if you can, or simply raise your voice however you feel comfortable.

Love and art, always.

When I Was Little

When I was little, I made a new friend at the beach. I remember it like it happened yesterday. I was wearing a teal green two-piece bathing suit, with little bows on the back of the top, and little bows on the bottoms. My long brown hair was wet, hanging down to the middle of my back, and my bangs bounced on my forehead as I ran, my feet slapping the wet brick around the edge of the pool.

Sunlight bounced off the water and hit my teeth, reflecting blindly as I laughed and jumped into the pool with my new friend. She was skinny, and much tanner than me. I could never tan, and I still can’t, but the freckles tried desperately to make up for my lack of melatonin, stretching their faces to the sky, which was as blue as the ocean, and reached forever and ever and seemingly ever into the future.

She was skinny, and she wore a tie-dyed one piece. She had long blonde hair. I don’t remember her name. We grasped hands and played games around the pool. We invented worlds on the edge of the water, worlds with rules but without regulations, worlds with no night, only day. No rain, only sunlight. No money, only play. Even now, as I think of her, I can feel the sand coating my thighs, stubbornly clinging, unaffected by chlorine stains.

When I was little, we always went to the beach in the mornings. Always, always, I would wake up and my parents would be brewing coffee, and a fresh box of doughnuts would sit on the counter, open and waiting for me. The house would smell of coffee and sugar glaze and saltwater, and when I woke up the first thing I heard was the waves crashing against the shore. I can smell it now. I can hear it.

We would walk down to the beach, and I would dutifully remove my flip-flops, as I had watched my mother do so many times before. And I would tread carefully on the sand, feeling my calves clench up in resistance, releasing their tension once I arrived at the water’s edge. My toes reached and grasped at the waves, urging me forward. I would always go in, maybe up to my waist, but I was afraid to go any farther. My mom almost drowned when she was little, so my fear is ingrained in my double helices. But the fear just made me love it more, pushed me toward it more insistently, made the splash of my legs cutting through the blue echo more loudly against the coastline.

My parents and I would always make sandwiches for lunch. We sat out on our balcony and ate them while we played card games or backgammon. The balcony over the beach was a safe zone; I have only happy memories of that space – laughing, feet curled up under knees, bellies full of bologna and potato chips, sun-kissed skin straining against plastic railing, the constant whoosh of the waves hitting the shore. That was my childhood.

When I wasn’t so little anymore, I remember going to the beach by myself one night. I sat in the sand, on the very edge of the water. I remember thinking I had never seen anything so black in my entire life. So black, and vast, and empty, and full, all at the same time. I remember thinking I had no idea what I was actually looking at, and wondering if there was someone on the other side of the water, looking back at me. I remember wondering if I tossed a bottle into the ocean, first writing a letter and tucking it inside, if it would ever reach someone, anyone, and if that person would write me back. I remember thinking how everything was actually connected, how any sense of separation was just a human invention, and how the ocean was proof of this.

Now, I’m all grown-up. I live in New York City, and I haven’t seen the Gulf for more than two years. And now, I know I’ll never see it again. I will go down, I will visit, but the waters of my childhood are gone forever. Even as I write it, I deny it. I tell myself I’m just being dramatic, that I should just stop writing right now, because the oil spill’s not that bad after all, and it will be resolved soon, and will be nothing more than a black shadow of a memory, a former version of a slick we almost forgot.

But the truth is that, probably, it is that bad. The thing about oil is that we don’t know how much of it there is, because the universe buried it underneath miles and miles of dirt and sand and earth, and we can’t see where it ends. We found it, and claimed it as ours, but, as usual, we know only the beginning. In the meantime we just see people and animals, stuck in a frozen flail, suspended in space by oil.

To the people at British Petroleum, and across the entire oil industry, who have been charged with repairing this tragedy, know that you cannot. All the money in the world is useless. Nature doesn’t accept our currencies. You cannot repair it, but you can work to stop it. And you have to.

Get off your yacht, Tony Hayward. Of course I don’t believe that you can fix this horror show, and I don’t even believe that you care to, but at least you should pretend.

Just imagine, now, if I dropped a bottle into the Gulf. It wouldn’t go very far. It might float out just a few miles before it got trapped in the sludge. And inside, a letter that would never be read. A letter that says, “Hi, my friend from the pool. I don’t know if you remember me from all those years ago. I was wearing teal green. I can’t remember your name, but I am glad we made friends. I hope you get this letter. Love, Meghan.”


  1. I love the words " nature doesn't accept our currencies"... that in itself says it all... I think this tragedy has been mounting or is the culmination of previous years when enviromentalist like Green Peace, etc., were in the past looked upon as 'those crazies'... the ones who would advocate for a better environment and were shunned from doors... All that shunning is now the result... Turning away, ignoring what was said... Granted they may have been considered far fetched but now its in our face... I think this is the beginning of what will be everyone's nightmare...
    A well written piece, Meghan... this should be submitted to a literary or current event mag, its certainly worthy of one...

  2. This essay is fantastic.

    I guess I haven't really thought that much about it either...but my family goes to South Padre Island, TX every summer, and we're going next month. I guess I should start thinking about it...

  3. @Chrissy Thanks, Chrissy, I really appreciate that. Sad that even as I was writing the essay, I felt like I might be a crazy environmentalist myself. But the thing is that it's not crazy to care about what happens to the oceans and fish and birds. It's vital.

    @Miss Morgan: Thank you!! Yeah, better start thinkin about it. I'm sure it will affect Texas too. They're saying the oil might come up to the Hamptons eventually... wtf moment.

  4. It's beautiful.. I think I for so long was just kind of pushing it aside, not fully understanding the magnitude... Until I saw the animals affected and the website and realized holy shit, half of Michigan and most of Ontario would be covered if this spill occured in my backyard, since then my heart can't seem to stop breaking about it...

  5. @Magpie: Just checked out the website. Wow. It's horrific. So heartbreaking.

  6. I love this essay... and I agree with Chrissy, it should be submitted somewhere. It's beautifully written and the ending is so poignant. Also- terrifies me. Sometimes I just want to go home and cry about how much we're mistreating our world... and saying that makes me feel like a "crazy environmentalist" too but, really, WTF. What happened and what's been happening is NOT acceptable.

  7. dear meghan, wow so interesting to find this today - a retweet from @gagadaily. i'm from alabama too and lived in NYC in my 20s and i too made friends just like you growing up at the beach on the gulf. now i live in cali and especially being far away it is definitely hard to accept that this is for real and may have totally ruined the place we grew up... forever. i try to be optimistic but i have a tear in my eye and a lump in my throat that won't go away

  8. @Irina: Thanks, that's really sweet of you. And yeah I feel crazy talking about this situation, too, but it really is as bad as all the "crazies" say it is.

    @maxine: Wow, thanks for sharing. I wonder why you left NYC and moved to Cali? Did you ever consider moving back South? Glad there's someone out there with similar experiences who understands where I'm comin from...