Work for the Long Haul

In a recent interview in the magazine gal-dem, Roxane Gay’s comments about cancel culture, a phrase I just learned from my daughter last night, are critical to a national conversation we desperately need to be having with ourselves and each other.

This conversation is not easy or simple or quick. It requires nuance, patience, and commitment — all skills eroded by a cultural moment that lends itself to reactivity and the hot topic du jour.

Related to this, in my mind, is something Leesa Renee Hall​ wrote recently about why “becoming an anti-racist is a lousy new year’s resolution.” Read that here, and join Leesa’s Patreon community for writing prompts and deep work around uncovering and addressing your unconscious bias.

This is all work for the long haul.

For the past month or so, probably since around the time Freedom School with Desiree Lynn Adaway​* ended in December, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own part in this movement. Truth be told, my thoughts have drifted to wondering whether anything I’ve done has made any difference. And each time I start indulging this self-referential reverie, I have the same wake-up call moment: IT IS NOT ABOUT ME.

Every single time I have thoughts like, “what am I really doing, anyway? Is anything I’m doing making a difference?” is an opportunity to peel away another onion-skin layer of internalized white supremacy.

This in of an itself is a significant aspect of addressing the ways in which whiteness is in me, whether I want it to be or not.

Centering myself, questioning the work if I can’t see the immediate “results,” as if anti-racism and social justice work is akin to going to the gym and expecting to see greater muscle definition after a few workouts.

For many well-intentioned white feminists, letting go of the need for evidence that we are “making a difference” is a humbling and crucial step on the long, decidedly not sexy road of becoming better allies.

We have to be more devoted to continuing to show up, listen, learn, and put our own agendas aside than we are in getting credit for our efforts, feeling good about our “impact” on the very individuals and communities we claim to be invested in yet unconsciously place ourselves above and apart from. This is what I mean by nuance.

We have to keep expecting more of ourselves. This means questioning our questions, and, more importantly, stepping out of the “I” mentality that keeps our focus inward rather than on the real stakes: People’s lives and systems designed to denigrate and destroy individual dignity and entire communities.

This is work for the long haul.

* There is still time to sign up for 2019 Freedom School, which begins at the end of January.

The House with the Painted-Shut Windows

Photo: Tiago Rodrigues

A few months ago, my wife and I spotted a house we found for sale on Zillow. We ran some numbers and we went to see it and we loved it in person, too. We did a walk through and then drove around the area for an hour, talking. This was right after Rosh Hashanah. The air was still warm, summery even, and the apple orchards near the house were abundant with fruit. It was easy to feel like the whole thing was just meant to be. We made an offer the next morning and it was accepted by noon.

A week later, we returned for the inspection. We began with benign stuff: A missing gutter, the faucets in one of the bathrooms reversed, and other signs of work done too quickly. At first blush, the bathrooms and kitchen looked like they’d been transplanted from the nearest IKEA showroom. A closer look revealed a lack of permitting and corners cut. We’d be buying a house priced as a four-bedroom that was legally zoned as a two-bedroom.

The off-gassing from the materials used to install the lower-level flooring — it was a raised ranch with a finished basement that we planned to use as a bedroom and home office — was so strong that my sister, who’d come to help suss out the place, had to go upstairs after a few minutes. My wife started having breathing trouble. I stood there thinking: No.

The corner downstairs “bedroom” had a single bed in the corner with some butterfly decals on the walls. This room had no windows, though it looked like a child slept there.

Before I go on, let me back up a few days and hope this next part doesn’t make me sound stalkerish. Really, I’m not. I’m a curious person, and a writer, and someone who assembles stories in my head. I Googled the address to see if I could learn anything about its history and its current owners.

It belonged to a couple. Presumably, based on the child’s room and the bundle of balloons in the corner of the kitchen that said, “It’s a boy!” they had a daughter and were expecting. The man had a prior court appearance for domestic assault, from a few years ago. None of my business, I know. But if I told you it didn’t color my perception of the house, I’d be lying.

The morning of the inspection, we saw the woman leaving the house with her little girl, clearly trying to get out of there given that four strangers were now milling around her driveway. As she leaned down to help her daughter into the carseat, I tried to catch her eye to smile. She quickly looked away. Had I not read what I’d read, I would’ve thought she was having a rushed and stressful morning trying to get to daycare and then work on time. Lord knows, I’ve had thousands of those myself.

Instead, I saw a woman who looked like she was doing her best to be as small and invisible as possible.

But this wasn’t the worst part. The worst part came about 25 minutes later. We started with the visual exterior — roof, gutters (or lack thereof), deck, foundation, trees. Then moved inside — kitchen, bathroom, living room, dining room. This didn’t take long, and no alarm bells went off. So far, so good. I wandered into one of the two upstairs bedrooms, the rooms that would belong to my own kids were we to proceed with the purchase.

That’s when I went to open a window. Huh. Strange. It wouldn’t budge. A further moment of investigation, and a quick survey of the other upstairs windows, then later downstairs, exposed something we found odd at best and chilling at worst. They were painted shut. All of them. I touched the paint. It was a recent job, and my wife and I exchanged a sinking look. It appeared that he had literally painted her in.

Of course, we cannot verify this. We are not investigators. We know nothing of these people’s lives, nor was it any of our business. But we knew in that moment — even aside from the lack of permits, the shoddy work, the chemical hazard of off-gassing that, unbelievably, is still not considered a “health and safety” issue in the inspection report — that we could not live in this house.

I wished I could slip a note to her somehow, with the number of Safe Passage, a local shelter for those fleeing domestic violence. But I knew I could not nothing but hope she would have the courage and means to get out.

Maybe she thinks she deserves it. After all, dinner was cold the other night. She’d forgotten to take out the recycling. She spent too much on groceries. Or he’d just had a shit day and that was her fault, too. Or maybe she was just too terrified. She was pregnant. They had a little girl. Keeping them safe — she had to. He loved them. He said so. He was sorry. He said so. Besides, who would believe her, anyway? He made good money. They had a nice life. She was lucky he took care of them. She was making it up. She was making him look bad. She was crazy. She was exaggerating. She was selfish.

We drove away, $700 lighter, knowing we would pull our offer. Knowing this house was a bullet dodged. And knowing that there was nothing we could do with this knowledge that a battered woman and her abuser might live there.

But those painted-shut windows have haunted me. Knowing a little girl slept in a room with no windows in a basement stifled by chemicals has haunted me. The statistics haunt me.

None of my business?

Maybe that woman I saw in the driveway’s personal life is none of my business. But it is my business that in the last 20 years, 17,700,000 women have been rape victims. It’s my business that 99% of sexual violence perpetrators face no lasting criminal charges. It’s my business that we live in a culture where a history of sexual violence does not keep men from attaining positions of power, prestige, and wealth — and that these, in turn, protect them.

It’s my business that many women, especially children and young women, don’t report their abusers, attackers, or rapists, for fear of retribution and their safety, as well as the common fact that they will very likely be questioned if not blamed.

It’s my business. Because I am a woman. Because I am a parent. Because I am a human.

And it’s your business, too. It has to be. And if it’s not, I wonder why. Are you frightened? In denial? What are you protecting?

Not one of us hasn’t been touched by sexual violence, knowingly or unknowingly. It is so widespread that you might not even be aware of how, or you might know exactly how and have spent many years honing your coping skills and compartmentalizing the truths your body and psyche carry.

When I was in high school — think late 80s — I went to a presentation about violence against women and the advertising industry. The images of women dehumanized, made into body parts, made into objects, seared into me. For women of color and trans women, and especially for trans women of color, the representations and realities were — and are — even more degrading.

I have had my share of near misses, but I have not been a victim myself of rape. I am not here to tell anyone else’s story, except to say that my life is filled with friends, family members, and writers who can’t say the same. Women for whom sexual assault and violence is woven into their cells.

I believe them. It’s my business to believe them. It’s my business to believe you. It’s my business to write what I can and then to stop writing and to listen, to make room for your story, if and when you feel ready to write it.

It’s my business to never shut up. To smile only when I feel like smiling. To keep doing my own work of healing a nervous system that cranks up in a millisecond if I feel scolded or scared.

And so I’m here. To tell the story of the painted-shut windows. To bear witness where I can and to refuse anything less than our full humanity, our full safety, and a reckoning the likes of which this country still hasn’t seen.

It’s time to get out our chisels and hammers, to break the seals, to break the windows if we have to. They cannot paint us in, ridicule, or scare or into silence.

“They Are Not That Smart”

The other day, Pearl seemed proud and a bit surprised after he said, “There is no try, Mama…” and I completed the sentence, “…there is only do.” Yes, even moms know about Yoda.

The sun is shining and even though it’s quite cold, the cold isn’t bothering me today. In fact, I just pulled up all of our bedroom shades, something I used to always do first thing in the morning but now we rarely do in our room, since we don’t really spend any time in there during the day, plus there is not a lot of privacy with the shades open from neighbors on both sides of the house. But I love the light and I love that sound of the shade springing up.

On any given day and at any given hour in our household, a load of laundry is going. Today, it’s the dog’s beds and our sheets are up next. I’m excited to make the bed later with clean sheets and blankets. This is one of my very favorite things in life, one of the small things that makes all the difference. Earlier, I swept the kitchen and while the house is far from spotless, that felt good, too. I have plenty of work to do but sometimes a little bit of housework is a good way in, a good way to get the energy moving.

There are just two weeks of this fall’s Jewels on the Path session, which began 14 weeks ago in September. The weeks and months fly by, cliche as it may seem. Life is not infinite. I had one of those moments, call it morbid, in the car earlier. I had just dropped Aviva off at school, and I put on “La Vie Boheme” from the “Rent” soundtrack. What a great fucking song that is. The whole soundtrack is brilliant, actually. (If you don’t know “Musical Apology,” go listen. It will make you laugh.)

Driving on 91 south back towards Amherst from Greenfield, I thought, what if I got into a grizzly accident right now? Would they be able to see what the last song I’d been listening to was?

Why do we have thoughts like this? I think it’s natural to imagine one’s own death. And I wonder if the more interesting question is: Can one imagine one’s own life, while living it? Isn’t that what we are here for? To not only imagine ourselves into being, but to be? How many days, weeks, months, years, and entire lives pass without imagination, without really being here? What does that even mean?

We make the mistake of aligning this — living with imagination — with money. If you have money, in our culture, we are taught that anything is possible. And yet we hear about the poverty of the spirit constantly, how eroded our values are, how damaged our collective sense of connection and compassion, how hollow the communal psyche.

It’s important not to romanticize actual poverty here — money, a degree of economic stability, does make possible at least some opportunity to consider meaning. If we are not sure where our children’s next meal is coming from, or our own, if we are so bone tired from working low-wage jobs with no guarantee that they will still be there if we have to call in sick, if our home has some kind of infestation but the landlord will not take care of it — there are a million scenarios that make things like “imagining our lives” laughable.

But on the other hand, staying connected to one’s own inherent dignity and worth is critical to meeting a world that may tell you you’re dispensable, disposable, unimportant. We equate wealth with importance, education with intelligence, social standing with true contribution. Who gets overlooked? Who remains invisible?

I have a friend who has been in several of my writing groups. Even though we both grew up here, that’s actually how we met, though the Dive Into Poetry groups. She is a wonderful poet, as well as a single mom. Her kids are the same age as my kids. She has her own business cleaning houses. The other day, we went for a walk. She told me she’d recently raised her rate by $15, and one of her long-time clients read her the riot act. I was so glad when my friend told me she stood up to this this entitled woman, but I also felt disgusted by the woman’s need to make sure my friend “knew her place.”

You might not even realize you’re treating someone differently based on your perception of their station in life, but we all do it.

One thing Michelle Obama said in her recent interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie really struck me:

I have been at probably every powerful table that you can think of, I have worked at nonprofits, I have been at foundations, I have worked in corporations, served on corporate boards, I have been at G-summits, I have sat in at the U.N.: They are not that smart.

We do so much othering of ourselves, and often we end up with short end of some imaginary stick. This is not imaginative; this is internalized oppression. Let’s invest more time, money, energy, and risk in stepping forward and claiming ourselves to be smart enough, worthy, and deserving. Having class privilege is not a pass to feel superior to those who are struggling economically; it’s a responsibility that means you can afford to rock the boat without the stakes being as high.

We need to keep stepping up, challenging systems, and speaking as individuals to other individuals about justice and equity and human value.

And with that, I’ll wrap this up and go put those sheets in the washing machine.

* * * 

Are you someone with some economic privilege, who would like to pay it forward?

Consider sponsoring a participant for Truth: A Year-Long Exploration of Personal Values. Just visit this page and scroll down to where it says Be An Angel for details.

Tonight There Is Grief

Tonight there is grief.

Nooses hung at the Mississippi state capitol building.

Two-year-olds — babies — at deportation hearings.

Tear gas at the border.

It hits me hard everyday, and today is no exception.

In the other room, behind one door, my daughter sings and plays guitar.

In another room, my wife makes herself dinner. The dog sleeps.

In another house, a few miles from here, my son and his father, my ex-husband.

Earlier, I wrote something. Then I almost deleted it.

A friend died. I did not know her in “real” life but I watched the short videos she shared on Instagram as the cancer progressed. And now she is gone. I feel so sad.

A friend’s mother is dying. This friend is more of an acquaintance, someone I knew a long time ago. I leave a comment, sending my love.

A friend’s mother died, after a long, difficult spiral into dementia.

A friend’s mother died of breast cancer.

A friend’s father is dying. He no longer speaks or remembers everyone’s names. Her writing about his dying is exquisite and sad and so very real.

A friend whose brother died does not post about her brother’s death, but it’s there, behind the screen.

A friend posts that her little girl died 11 years ago. I do not know this friend well at all. I had no idea. I have to choose between a “heart” and a “sad” emoji. My heart breaks.

A friend’s son died.

Another friend’s son died.

Another friend’s son died.

A friend’s daughter died.

Another friend’s daughter died.

A friend’s sister died, who had been her best friend.

Everyone has lost someone or is in the process of losing someone.

Everyone knows grief, the way it shocks the system, the way it can appear years later, the way it can become part of the landscape, the way it can be invisible.

Live as if you are living.
Live as if you are dying.

Love as if the person you’re loving is grieving.
Receive love if you are grieving.

We are here.
We are here.
We are here.

And if you are grieving today: I’m so sorry. I am sending love.

I almost deleted it because my god, it’s depressing, right?

But this is also real. This is also life. Life is so much loss. And yes, so much joy and joy is radical and necessary, and beauty can be found in the sound of the guitar and the simultaneous sound of the rain, mostly because we are here, alive, to hear it.

I am feeling this so acutely tonight, the utter pain in the world, and also the love, the deep love for humanity and the deep repulsion from humanity, too — how can these both be true?

No, I will not ask “how” — how can we treat each other this way? That question is like asking, “How/when did our country become this way?”

We know how, and the when never began; it has been this way since the beginning.

Tonight there is grief.

Women, Come: a Poem

They said build a wall
when what they meant was
let’s rip off the additions
to this building
so that it stands erect
and makes us feel like men

Strip away the protections
for the poor
kick the same-sex sinners
to the curb
sequester the accented
and the abortion lovers
to the alleyways

Let those lame suckers duke it out
while we remake
the world
in our image
as it was
in the

They said we will stop
at nothing
we will rip off your dress
we will rip off your elders
we will rip off the unborn
we claim
to care so much about

And in these halls
we will fill our back pockets
with back room deals
slip out the back door
while you bitches bang
on the two front doors
about bodies
wah wah wah

We will take with us
the money
the food
the car
make your life a living hell

What they forgot:
their mothers
the wombs that fed them
the canals they traveled
into the light of day
that greeted them like
pale princes
for the throne

What they forgot:
in the beginning
before there was Adam
there was a great void
darkness before light
and a woman
who said, Nah
and flew away

What they forgot:
we hold the keys
we are up in the night
making maps and plans
sharpening our knives
no longer caring
how we look
in the mirror

listen to me closely
it is not your fault
it is not your fault
it is not your fault

listen to your sister
whose cells remember
chains and darkness

listen to your daughter
who was born singing
a new song