by Gen Rollins
There is a word adopted into Israeli culture used to describe the people. The word is Sabra, and it relates to a common cactus plant that grows throughout the deserts of the Middle East. In the language of identity, a Sabra is an individual, an Israeli-born Jew who is prickly on the outside, but soft and gentle on the inside. Although my roots are not in the land deemed Israel, this prickly outer shell is the guard I carry every day as I head into battle.
In an era of irresolute conflict, where being a person of color and a Jew come into daily contact with abrasive realities, I find value in the healing process. Battle fatigue casts over like a night sky at times, and I am required to relinquish my un-ending quest, put down the research, stop being a power-house, and just remember. There is so much digging into history required when the history of your peoples has been either erased or buried, and it can become hard to remember that in this present moment we are making new histories that matter. In our individual bodies, we are carrying those spirits onward, and we are not here just to fight for our existence, but also to enjoy it.
Two plants have been ringing in my heart this week, outlining that very feeling. Hamamelis virginiana, native to North America, makes a potent healing tincture. This plant has been passed on for generations through my father's side of the family. More commonly known as witch hazel, the tincture is prescribed for every ail from migraines to bruises. In the wood of my family tree, each healer and layer of hands knows the remedies of Epsom salts, coco butter, and witch hazel. My father, who was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, was the eldest child of his family. He soaked up all his mother's secrets and listened to his Cherokee great grandma, Big Ma, as she told him stories from her rocking chair. I do not know if he ever saw witch hazel in its native form, but growing up with a southern kitchen garden taller than his young self, he knew a love of plants from early on.
Known for his uncanny calm, my father has been teaching me about grace since I was smaller than the bushes. He taught me that a Black man can be sensitive, and kind, and that wounds need tending to. He taught me the importance of sitting still amidst chaos, and that my world as a mixed-race Black woman would come with many moments where my ability to hold patience would be called upon. As we are a peoples in healing, we are a peoples inflamed, and I find that freedom comes to me today in a state of calm. I have spent many hours enraged at old wounds which are continuously cracked open, needing constant and regular attention. Facing white supremacy in daily battle will leak into septic levels when explosively violent events churn the molecules of of fear and anger throughout. Those Sabra spikes become my skin, and everything is sore and red and raging. It is in these times that I need the lessons of my father. It is in these times that I need a tincture to soothe the skin, and remember the soft, sweet inner core that makes not all of me, but keeps me whole. From this place, I can restore, which brings me to the next source of medicine.
Avena sativa, also known as milky oats, is an incredibly generous healer. Introduced to me by a good friend, Bri Barton, milky oats address the nervous system, which is often rushing with to-dos and to-don'ts. As a nervine tonic, milky oats regenerate nerve cell tissues, restoring one’s relationship with relaxation and clarity. My dear friend Bri, came to know this medicine through her own descent into the crash and burn. She expressed how important her journey with this plant has been, relaying that it “saved [her] well being” in times of hardship. The way in which Bri understands Avena sativa is as a dear friend and teacher, a nurturer of resilience, and a reminder of groundedness. She and Jenna Forte introduced me to the plant in a wilderness preserve just beyond the Ben Franklin Bridge. The two womyn were resolving what it means to do anti-racist work as white womyn, while being honest and receptive to their own histories.
Surrounded by these two strong, unyielding people, I flexed my exhaustion on a misty day. We chatted about our positions in the world—mine as a womyn of color, and theirs as white womyn witches who do anti-racist work. Connection to heritage was a humbling reality for all of us. It takes a certain amount of honesty to go there in such sensitive company, but the sanctity of pulling up weeds together gave us room to talk. Bri and Jenna had planted milky oats with some friends in earlier seasons. They waited till the oats were right for harvesting, and then called in the crowd to gather seed tops. I was lucky to be one of four, turned three, to witness the growth. Bri said she planted Avena sativa because it was the same type of medicine and food her ancestors planted. She wanted to fuel the revolutionaries who work with tools so complex, they may never be eased. Bri, too, is a tiresome worker, who I have seen collapse and rise with the motions of her own efforts. We've been through the wringer together, and have emerged with the great gift of trust in one another.
At the last Soil Generation gathering, Bri, with her chin up and bright smile ‘cross her face, offered up the three gallons of milky oats tincture made by she and Jenna. Between two sets of hands, many friends, a bundle of ancestors, and the guard of some wandering goats, a medicine was made to restore all of our tired minds. It will recover the myelin sheath—first part of the nerve cell to deteriorate in chronic nervous system conditions, and help return lost vitality to a weary soul. Within all the turmoil of endlessly gathering ancestral pebbles of the self, it's wonderful to know that medicine is out there being shared.