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You and your place in the movement that is always happening.

You and your place in the movement that is always happening.

Jennifer Williams



Brita and I start driving north. Our final destination is Salem, Oregon. The sky is yellow and the mountain ridges are a jagged threat on the skyline. Wildfire.

The smoke is obfuscating everything, absolutely everything. I know Mt. Shasta is somewhere in front of me. But all we can see is the road we are driving, and then a wall of white haze, then the little hill as the road ascends it. And only on top of that hill can I see there is another one only half appearing.

Gold dry grass and dark green pine cloaked in gray. Juniper trees, branches and green needles half-open and clenched, unsure whether to grow into a fist or an open palm.

These are the foothills of Shasta. We know there is a volcano, but we can’t see it. 

The last time I saw Mt. Shasta was in May 2017 driving with Billy back from Lava Beds National Monument in Modoc territory. He had never seen such a big volcano so close up. He is from the East Coast, where mountain ranges are older and therefore smaller. It is from him I learned that mountain ranges sink back into the earth. They soften. In enough time maybe they will flatten, like a wave emerging and disappearing back into itself.

When he saw Shasta that day in the early spring he yelled. He yelled at Shasta. He asked Shasta why it was so big, how could it be so big, how was it real? How could it be so menacing and so beautiful? And always the last question—is it active? Could it really happen?

I look for Shasta now, expecting it to appear, fuzzy at first, on the other edge of a wall of smoke. But I can’t see it, can’t remember exactly where along the road I should be able to see it, and can only imagine its bulk. It could be anywhere. It could be shifting, growing, smoking.

In Human Development class, our teacher gives a lecture on Freud and other early psychologists. It is important to remember, our teacher says, that these are all just theories. The Id is a theory, the Ego is a theory, the Superego is a theory. Their struggle for balance amongst the three, a theory, too. This theory is rooted in a culture, a white European patriarchal culture, and put to language by a man who believes humans are inherently violent and chaotic and need some critical part of themselves to keep those impulses in check. Or else society is at risk. Or else we might hurt ourselves and each other. The way, supposedly, of checking ourselves, keeping our Id in line, is through our Defenses. That’s one theory.

Freud’s daughter Anna built upon her father’s ideas and listed a Hierarchy of Defenses. “Splitting” is the earliest and most basic defense and is defined as, “separating conflictual material from consciousness.” There is only good and bad, and no gray area in between. Later, we process through Projection, then Reaction Formation, then Intellectualization. To be able to intellectualize and separate from the feeling is the highest form of defense, according to this theory. I asked my teacher if we might react initially to all difficulties with Splitting, no matter how much we have matured. What if you can intellectualize it, but cannot separate the feeling, because the conflict at hand is the fact that your own life is at risk? Maybe is it a matter of how quickly we can move from the basic defenses up to the top? And she said that could be one theory. Because after all, these are all theories, which are all things we are not sure about. These are all just different ways of clearing and obscuring—clearing and obscuring the air of what it is to be human. One type of human. What it is to be a human like Freud, at least: a straight white European man with a great fondness for cocaine.

The mile markers on the side of the road all say SIS. This makes me uneasy but I can’t place why. Maybe it’s the sound “sis” makes. The hissing of it. Maybe it’s something deeper somewhere. Whatever it is, or whatever it isn’t, I can feel the word rolling through my stomach.

So why does my mind always categorize information as good or bad? One or the other? Whether or not I want to see clues, they look into my eyes and I am seen under them as they see me. I am seen by my interpretation. I am seen by my discomfort juggling such a sign between good and bad. And it doesn’t mean I understand them. Or that they are actually clues. They are just mile markers in Siskiyou County, so they all say SIS. Why do I feel uneasy with this?

After making reservations online, Brita and I camp at Sheep Rock Ranch outside of Weed, California. We drive in on an unpaved road and a filter of dirt joins the wildfire smoke in the air. I can taste it even though my mouth is closed, a light film on my tongue. A man named Christian owns the land, I think, or he manages it. All I can say for sure is he is the one who emerges from an early 1980s Toyota RV to show us around the property. He has for the most part given up the festival life, he says, and instead of going to Burning Man, he hopes to bring small groups of people here to Sheep Rock Ranch where he can offer his services as a healer. There is a handpainted sign leaning against the perimeter of his living space. It reads, “Live Life with Fierce Intentions,” and my heart is warm for him.


Shasta should now be somewhere south of us. We’ve crossed that marker. Should I have stayed home, stayed in the Bay Area, where crowds were gathering after the attacks in Charlottesville? I wanted to add my body, to be part of the mass blocking out the hate that had come to the surface, or the hate that was the surface, the hate that this country was built on.

At night in the tent I read “Total Eclipse” by Annie Dillard out loud to Brita and start to regret it. I am scared of the eclipse we are traveling to see. Dillard wrote of descending into a kind of hell: everyone looked dead, everyone seemed far away, sound was scattered across time and space. Earlier in the week I had cooked up a nightmare scenario: North Korea and the bomb and the path of totality and the western coast and millions of people already looking up at the sky and a ball of light and what if that’s how it was going to happen? I want to apologize to Brita for reading this story, and to apologize for planning this trip, and to apoligize to the few dozen others who would be meeting us there, too.

I turn off my headlamp and roll onto my side. Dust is in my nose. Dust is narrowing my nostrils. Dust is restricting the ability of my nostrils to provide oxygen to my lungs and my brain. I wonder if I will die in my sleep from a lack of oxygen. I wonder if I will die from a nuclear attack from North Korea. I wonder if I will die in a car crash driving north to Oregon to see the eclipse. I remind myself it is not worth worrying about. There are other things worth worrying about. I need to save all of my worrying for the things I can do something about.

I wonder if Christian likes this landscape because the dust reminds him of Burning Man. I like this landscape, and I’m sure Christian does too, because of the pastel sky that even makes the jagged rocky red mountain ridge, what must be Sheep Rock, seem friendly and approachable. It rises above us like the mast of a ship, narrow, curved, yet billowing and bulging out along the lower edges. The movement of conquest by water caught in time. I like this landscape because it smells like sage, and I think sage smells turquoise. I like the smell of turquoise even more when the sky is pink and the sun is orange. I like this landscape because of the lava rocks that remind me of hot explosions, of a brief moment of passion turned into eternity or something close to eternity. I like volcanoes. One reason I like volcanoes is because of something Hélène Cixous wrote in her essay “The Laugh of the Medusa.” She says, 

A feminine text cannot fail to be more than subversive. It is volcanic; as it is written it brings about an upheaval of the old property crust, carrier of masculine investments; there’s no other way. There’s no room for herifshe’snotahe.  Ifshe’saher-she,  it’s in order to smash everything, to shatter the framework of institutions, to blow up the law, tobreak up the “truth” with laughter.

I lay in my tent at the foot of the mountain, looking at the sky through the mesh. I think about what it means to be volcanic. The inevitability of being volcanic. We have not been given another way out. Here, somewhere near Shasta, the bright red setting sun keeps changing the sky.

Brita and I watch the same sun rise the next morning over the ridge to the east, Sheep Rock. We test out the eclipse glasses, and looking through them at the sunrise the sun is a light orange disc surrounded by black. It’s smaller than expected, the light condensed and the outline clean.

“It’s all you can see,” I said.

“It looks so small,” Brita said.

Does it seem smaller because we never look at it directly? It is day, so the sky is lit, and the sun takes up its space while every day we are looking away. We are looking at the ground when we think we know about the sun.


The day before the 1979 eclipse, February 25th, Annie Dillard had driven over the Cascade Mountains of Washington and “into the region of dread.” In 2017, dread is everywhere. It is not just contained to the path of totality or to the days surrounding the eclipse.  

Maybe it was different in 1979. It was winter when she saw it. I can believe, then, that the cold winds were so strong, as she had written, that she couldn’t hear her husband speak. “The sun was going,” Annie Dillard wrote, “and the world was wrong.” I will agree with that much. It was the world that had gone wrong.

First the light changes. We played with the light and the crescent-shaped shadows. Everyone’s skin is changing. We turn grey. And we are together while we are watching. Like Dillard, we feel the winds pick up as the moon does its work with the sun. I see the sun slowly swallowed by the growing darker blue sky. It is swallowed so slowly I wouldn’t have known it was happening otherwise. I would have thought that maybe a cloud was passing in front of the sun. It is another everyday movement, but I know to look this time.The shadows are thinning. We are spinning and running and jumping and yelling while we are watching. It’s almost there. It’s almost happening. It is happening, this is it, it is right now.

The movement can change at any moment. The movement does change at every moment. The movement is different today that it was yesterday. The movement may have several directions: the movement of the Sun, the movement of the Moon, the movement of the Earth. We are watching those everyday movements, the sun across the sky, the moon circling us, the earth turning, our bodies turning to see the sky bodies, those everyday movements that are not small because they are everyday but are actually huge because they are everyday. They are what make our every day, and now we know and the wonder stretches out behind us. We think of every day that came before and all these everyday movements, and the wonder stretches out in front of us. That wonder stretches out, and how will it meet the region of dread?

We pack up the cars and drive east then south. Anna, Justin, Brita, and I drive through more smoke and can hardly see the road. There are more wildfires in Oregon now. The windows are up but it gets in through the vents and our noses itch and our eyes water. We stop in Sisters, Oregon, and I want to see the Big Obsidian Flow in the Newberry National Volcanic Monument, and Anna finds hot springs that are in the same park. This park, and the other one I had been to this year, Lava Beds National Monument, are both volcanic and both are monuments. I later mention this to my friend Nicole, who is obsessed with place and of course she is knowledgeable about these titles. “Presidents can declare any land a monument without approval from Congress. Sometimes doing so sets the wheels in motion so that the land can become a National Park. Yosemite and Yellowstone are National Parks. The differences after that are often bureaucratic. Also, National Parks usually have some kind of historical marker,” she says.

As I walk along the obsidian flow, I think of the other kind of monuments, of statues. Monuments are still. They are stone, marble. Are they the opposite of movement? A moment frozen in time. There is no way to reimagine, to recast the present moment’s relationship to that past moment, now frozen, now monument. If we freeze the past, though, can we revisit it? Can our imagination change the past? But these monuments are the same. I am thinking about Confederate Monuments. Or most monuments in this country.

This volcano, though, Newberry National Volcanic Monument, is a different kind of monument. This monument was also a moment. Lava Beds, too. A moment where a volcanic eruption met cold air and turned itself to stone. There is pumice. There is obsidian. The four of us hike up the obsidian flow as the sun sets bright red again and we are not sure if we are on Earth anymore, or maybe we are very sure that Earth is a planet in space now because the black shining glass obsidian makes a black-toothed and broken martian landscape under the pink wildfire sky.

What can we learn from this kind of monument? It was born out of movement. It captured an explosive moment, a moment full of movement, a moment that changed the landscape, a moment that benefited the people surrounding it. And the people who visited this monument continued to shape it. They kept the monument in movement. The people who visited this monument decided what it meant to them. This monument, by nature, kept changing. This monument gives. At least five different Native American tribes would make yearly visits to the flow to gather obsidian for toolmaking. Since obsidian from each volcanic eruption is unique, it is easy to track and identify where pieces originated. Pieces from this specific obsidian flow have been found hundreds of miles away. I read this on a plaque at the park, and it didn’t say which people specifically might have visited this flow. Maybe the Klamath, the Northern Paiute, the Shoshone, the Modoc, too? And what about the Shasta, the people Mount Shasta is named after? Were these some of the people who, piece by piece, gathered obsidian and made of this old volcano what they needed, whether they saw it as monument or not? Something gets in the way of my knowing for sure. Clearing and obscuring, clearing and obscuring. I squint through outdated webpages, maps of Oregon, the same eyes that squinted looking for Mt. Shasta through the smoke. But would the names still be there when the air cleared? I would like to chip away at Robert E. Lee, at Andrew Jackson, at Abraham Lincoln. Billy texted me a map of the path of totality cross-referenced with whether each county along that line was red or blue, whether each county the eclipse passed through voted for Hillary or Trump. It was all red, nearly all red, maybe two or three blue counties. 

A few days later, I arrive home in Oakland. I unpack, and then pack again but for another trip, the beginning of graduate school. I drive south to Mt. Madonna in the mountains above Watsonville where I meet my classmates. One of the first essays I will write in school is about the constant movement of the muscles in my feet, and that stillness is in fact made of constant movement, constant readjustments. Because of the movement of these tiny muscles, I can find balance. 

And for weeks the newsfeed is full of other people in other cities, their hands also in the air—playing with the shadow. I can see their phones raised in the air, the easy camera capturing this movement, the movements that we now see are so everyday. The same easy cameras that in recent years have brought to light the violence that makes up the everyday: Oscar Grant, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Philando Castile. The complete list would take up all of these pages and more. Now do we see the movements? How they make up our world? Now do we see the cosmic scale of it all?

Rachel Khong

Rachel Khong

The Stain

The Stain