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Our America: All Life's Matter

Ever since the walk that Saturday, the modest but set-with-care-into-the-lawn homemade sign has haunted me, its simple black font on a rectangle of white foam core. I couldn't believe what I had seen, didn't know whether to laugh or to cry.

It stood in my neighbors’ yard, the same neighbors who on the day following the election had raised a flag, a thin white polyester rag with blue letters spelling the name of the winner. It stayed there for a few months, but had to come down, its cheap cloth and flimsy manufacturing no match for our winters. It was the same neighbors who on weekends collect crushed Budweiser cans and plastic iced tea jugs, emptied and hurled onto the sides of the roads of our small rural town out of careening pick-up trucks. They toss them along with other trash into a trailer pulled by a small tractor to bag and dump at the transfer station later on. It was the same neighbors whose four-to six-year-olds once chanted the name of the current president from atop the same trailer as it snaked its way through the neighborhood behind the same grunting tractor.

The sign was set back, not right at the edge, a quiet statement: “All Life’s Matter.” That's what it said. “All Life’s Matter.” It didn’t pack the punch of the intended “All Lives Matter,” which by its very inclusiveness excludes, asserting who does and does not merit a sliver of singular focus. By the same logic, taking a week or a year to grieve someone who died of cancer somehow neglects heart disease. “All Life’s Matter,” on the other hand, is gravid with the possibility of renewed attention to the world.

Possessive or a contraction I immediately wanted to know. If possessive, was the sign marking all of life’s matter buried under it, a subterranean compost pile of the millennia, tree roots, the mantle and mycelia of mushrooms, insect exoskeletons, and, deeper down, the moist aquatic worlds? And what if, like Alice, I could slide below all that is recognizable, beyond where the schist crumbles into dirt, where under unimaginable pressure and in hellish heat matter keeps reliving its galactic origins? All Life’s Matter, the sign said. All matters life.

And what if it means all life is matter, all physics and dialectics, no room for metaphysics or intuition? Or is it that all that’s material, phenomenal and noumenal, is one? Or perhaps it’s just to remind that alchemy and allegory and astrology are all reflections of human desire, God chiseled into matter through sentience. Either way, all is matter. And energy. And particles and waves and strings and methodical evasion of a unifying theory. And uncertainty.

The sun was shining, its photons spinning in a primordial dance. The wind whipped the clouds and me along, the air saturated with the smells of hay and Concord grapes. I wanted to drop next to this sign and smell the earth beneath, dig until my fingers bled, until I could hold Earth’s molten core in my hand and prove that all life is matter, and all matter is life, and that I, too, matter. But I kept walking instead. I kept thinking about the sign in my neighbors’ yard and how, though they may not have meant to, they presented this vast ramifying proposal that everything fits, that everyone fits, that it’s all right here, all of life’s matter, and all life is matter.

When I was approaching the house again the other day, my heart skipped, my breath hastened, my step quickened. Will it still be there, I worried, or will someone have told them, explained their error? Will they have taken the sign down, or, worse, corrected the spelling? From a distance I saw the stand at the same angle, the ink streaks in a familiar configuration, the apostrophe where it had been before. It was there, proclaiming the same koan as in the days before. It looked at me sideways, a little shy, as though unsure of its message. I smiled and nodded with what I hoped was encouragement.

It amuses me how the universe works, that a petulant reaction can, through a simple grammatical accident, turn into something like hope. Maybe I’ll thank these neighbors sometime for their sign, and they may wonder why. Maybe some weekend I’ll join them in picking up trash from the side of the road and bringing it to the transfer station.

MARYA ZILBERBERG is a physician-health services researcher. She lives in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tablet Magazine, Longreads, and Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, among others. She tweets as @murzee.

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