“How Can I Help You” and Other Three-Dimensional Questions

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If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
— Lilla Watson

My first year at Barnard, I was part of a tutoring program where we went into public schools each week. It was called Students Helping Students. I loved doing it and can still picture sitting on the floor in a hallway, quietly cheering as a kindergartener made his way through “Are You My Mother?”

I also see now that it was White Students Feeling Good About Themselves by Helping Kids of Color in Underfunded Schools. Both of these are true, because truth is never one-dimensional. And I am still unlearning aspects of my amazing education, and educating myself about how not to be just another nice white lady.

But I have always remembered the name. And for as much as I’ve changed and hold myself to waking up, some things really are threads. The seeds of being of use, of using my skills to connect with other people — those are still here, in the form of women helping women and writers helping writes and humans being good to each other.

Questions of what I want feel short-sighted, and as always, I need to find that place where “what I want” intersects with “what do you — what does the world — need?” It’s a strange interplay, because needs are often most powerfully met by making an offering of some kind, the truest one you have, rather than taking a poll first and then scrambling to see what you can give. In other words, there has to be a balance, a meeting place, between self and world. Service and need. You and me. I and thou — minus the holier-than-thou crap.

This week, I finally dove into working on a manuscript of poems. It will be my third collection, and I’ve felt it swirling around for months now, a wispy suggestion to start that I couldn’t quite grasp. I don’t know what clicked — maybe it was writing a poem a day for a month. Or the urgency to connect, and this being one of my ways.

It’s too easy to write in generalizations. To write about bodies, to write about color, to write about religion. To use words like “justice” and “equality” and “safety” that must withstand so much battering. I fail when I attempt to write about these words. But I can assemble a book of poems. I can say, come in, sit down, and write what’s true for you. I can and will continue to ask what makes you happy, what brings you joy, what frightens you most. Where is your conviction?

I’m sitting here at my kitchen table, as I so often am when I come here to write. I’m sitting here being white. I’m sitting here being Jewish and gay and female and short and big and small at the same damn time. On my run this morning, I thought about all the times in my life I’ve had to remember how to dream, because dreaming got drowned out by the competition and walked not through but right into the doorway.

I do this, you know that by now, right? I sit down and start typing (actually, I sat down and started this hours ago), and just connect the dots and usually have no idea where I’m going. This is no different. I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know where our country is going, though all I have to do is be awake to see that this is not a difficult one to guess. It’s going exactly like this.

It’s more polarized than ever, and all the movies about good and evil, about light and dark, have come true. Life imitates art and art imitates life until there is not point in distinguishing the two. Reality TV is politics and politics is the usual and not becoming jaded requires fierce strength, which we might enjoy momentarily but no one can sustain for long alone.

Which is why we need each other. Today, a coaching call. I heard: “Stuck, frustrated, embarrassed, want to help, white, privileged.” These were words that came up again and again. And we talked about how to be present and keep moving forward, rather than spiraling into stagnation, which is about as self-focused as it gets. We talked about showing up, as a learner, as an observer, and what it means to know you get to trust yourself.

“How can I help you?” takes on a whole new dimension of importance, and the answers are not always clear, nor is that always the best question. So be patient — and remember that this fight, like truth, like life, is three-dimensional. It’s happening in real time, and it’s not about feeling good or meeting our own needs, but about our liberation being bound up in each other.

Courage and heart and risking sounding like we don’t know what we’re doing, because sometimes we don’t, and the only way to start getting clear and making any kind of impact is to stumble through. Not one of us is some kind of savior, but uprisings happen when enough individuals refuse to play by the rules, especially when the rules are a sick and twisted distortion of reality, revisionism, and willful ignorance.

As a writer right now, it’s easy to feel pretty deflated. But to give up my voice that easily would be a betrayal to everything I care about. It may or may not matter, but I will keep offering my words. I will keep being as kind a human as I can, and as awake a white person as I can (though I will not use the word “woke,” as it does not feel like mine to use).

And I will assemble this next collection of poems, as an offering from my heart to yours, because it’s one of the only things I know how to do for sure.

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