Grappling with Radical Honesty in Reactive Times

Image: The Daily Don

I’ve started this sentence six ways to Sunday. I keep watching the bird feeder instead — the elegant mourning doves, who seem to wait their turn while the littler sparrows and finch peck away, unlike the blue jay bullies who, while beautiful to look at, just barrel in and take over the joint.

The reason I’m hesitating is because I want to write about some things I’m observing as more and more people wake up to the atrocities our government is committing, and I don’t want to fall into the self-righteous, liberal white people camp that shames others rather than opens doors to real dialogue, learning, growth, and action.

Does that mean I should just keep quiet on this front? May it go without saying that I, like you, have an ocean of unconscious bias to discover. I’m doing this by reading, writing, being quiet, listening, and learning from people of color and other white people who are also reading, writing, being quiet, listening, and learning from people of color and each other.

When I don’t hear a political peep from religious friends, I wonder where they stand.

When friends are suddenly outraged, calling this “a new low,” I wonder where they stand..

I simply wonder.

Maybe they are active in their place of worship or community in ways they choose not to share on social media. Not everyone is public or visible in their activism.

Maybe they are working through their own trauma. Maybe maybe.

I realize lately, I am still more bound up in “niceness” than I care to admit.

I do not want to alienate people who may indeed be grappling with their privilege and not sure what steps to take.

I do not want to alienate those who I’ve come to know in writing groups or school yards, just because they aren’t publicly taking a stand against policy brutality.

I do not want to assume what I don’t know.

I know many, many good people. I say “good” meaning: Compassionate, civically engaged, hearts-in-the-right-place people. Cycles of outrage on social media, if not coupled with tangible, organized actions, achieve little more than to exhaust us. And an exhausted “us” cannot sufficiently keep going, keep fighting.

Let me bring this down to earth. Yesterday, Mani and I sat talking for a long time, about how to take care of our lives, how to direct our time and money as we can to suffering right here in our town, and at the same time not look away or check out from what’s happening in our country. If it’s true that one-third of Americans are vehemently against this government and working in some capacity to dismantle the structures and systems that have brought us to this day, one-third of Americans actively condone and support white supremacy, and one-third don’t care (which blows my mind, I might add — we talked about this part all on its own for a quite a while), then that means those of us who give a shit are in the minority.

Bottom line question here: Is there any possibility of righting this ship enough to truly change course?

We’ve been moving in this direction all along.

So that is another thing I find myself baffled and frustrated by: The number of people popping up and asking, “How?”

How is this possible?

How could this happen?

How did Trump get elected?

How can “they” get away with this?

How did it get this bad?

These are not useful questions. They are ignorant questions.

And yet, I grapple. Because I know that I am ignorant in so many ways.

And I am also not ignorant in others.

My people, my ancestors, came to this country to escape persecution, too.

Jews were denied entrance to the U.S. before the Holocaust.

My ancestors happened to arrive fifty or so years prior to WWII. They arrived at Ellis Island. They were poor. They came with trunks and the clothes on their backs, not knowing the language. They “worked their way up.” They experienced discrimination as Jews, yes, but not so much so that they weren’t ultimately able to benefit from the “American Dream.” My sisters and cousins and our children are all direct beneficiaries in some capacity or other of the fact that our white-skinned ancestors, Jewish notwithstanding, arrived on these shores.

So often right now, I read or hear, “We are a country of immigrants.”

I want to say, Yeah! Hear, hear!

But I cannot in good conscience cheer for this sentiment. It’s a noble truth and a slice of America — but it’s far, far from the whole story. And to not continuously redirect our attention at this time to the scope of harm America’s wealth and apparent stability rests on is to stand in the most dangerous blindspot of all.

We do need hope. We need hope and we need all hands on deck and we need all of us to be awake to this unfolding nightmare. And we also need to stay focused on all the ways we — those who have enjoyed relative ease, comfort, stability, and opportunity as Americans — have looked away. We have looked away from the fact that the person cleaning our hotel room cannot collect social security, because service jobs were negotiated out of that deal. We have looked away from the steady proliferation of prisons and policies disproportionately directed to devastate communities of color.

So yes, when someone is newly upset or sharing about children being ripped from their parents’ arms, parents being deported to countries where violence and poverty make life untenable, I wonder. Is it better to begin somewhere than nowhere at all? Yes, I suppose. It has to be. And at the same time, where have you been?

Of course all of this is also my way of checking myself. Where have I been?

And this is where what I fear is shrillness in my voice must soften. Where I must stop to take a breathe and step off of my soapbox. Where I must acknowledge that I don’t like being shamed. I don’t like it when people make assumptions about my values or actions.

Right.

None of us likes that.

These are incredibly reactive times.

How do we continue to organize, do the work, address 10,000 emergencies at a time, and get enough sleep, care for those under our own roofs, and weed our own literal and proverbial gardens?

Reacting, yelling ourselves hoarse, unfriending and blocking — on the one hand, probably not the most effective route. Certainly not a sustainable one. And we need sustainable, because we are in for a very, very long fight here. One that has already been happening for 400 years and shows no signs up letting up anytime soon.

On the other hand, coddling apologists, bowing to so-called civility when the word itself is such an affront, such an insult, such a hypocrisy, will also not do.

I admire people who stay steady. Whose flame seems to burn brightly. Those who neither flare nor flicker.

It could be that raising children, paying attention to the ways in which I can be of use in our own community, and continuously seeking to see past the blinding benefits of whiteness, are true forms of radical action.

It could be that owning the fact that I can be judgmental as fuck is a good start — especially because it sucks to admit it. I am judgmental about the people who do not appear to be saying or doing a damn thing about a damn thing. There, I said it.

It could be that worrying less about being nice and more about being radically honest would be a good place to hang out.

It could be that so many of us are truly struggling to stay grounded right now. That so many of us DO see the truth of our country, and this horrific moment as a completely natural evolution of a deeply unjust system.

None of this can wait. It can’t wait until November 2018 or November 2020.

And I know we all have to figure out what’s for dinner tonight, and the dog needs to go out and the bills need to get paid and little Timmy just rode a two-wheeler for the first time!

To live your life and take care of your own does not have to equal complicity.┬áit’s not a binary equation. It’s real life.

But to be merely silent in these times is to say, I choose to look away — because I can.

Don’t look away.

Look in the mirror. Look to a friend you trust. Look to a book that challenges what you were taught to believe about the Land of the Free. Look to the sky that covers us all. Just look.

The Work Is More Important

Photo: Alexis Fauvet

I was walking to town earlier and talking to my angel posse, the sky a brilliant deep blue above, my gait swift, the cold air refreshing after a morning indoors.

I was thinking about my website and how from time to time, I get carried away by thinking it should be better, bigger, or different — and how this habitual thinking is familiar and comfortable, like the coat I love but sadly, have outgrown. It’s snug around the middle though I’m loathe to admit it, and it doesn’t really give me room to move freely and stay warm at the same time.

Well, that thinking — the “not enough” stuff with its claws tearing open healed over places — doesn’t fit anymore, but damn if I don’t still squeeze myself into it on occasion.

What came to me was this: “The work is more important than the website.”

The work is more important than the website. Oh, right!

What actually goes on — in groups and one-on-one — this is the work. The creative process, the writing, the sharing without apology, this is the work. And it is such real stuff.

Websites are nice. They can be supremely useful and aesthetically gorgeous and wonderfully functional. But they are not the work itself, at least not in my case. Remembering this today felt so good, like coming home.

And then I was on North Pleasant Street — no longer talking to myself (I try to save that for less public spaces, lol). I spotted the guy with the clipboard up ahead and did a quick mental dance about whether I would stop or not. I decided to let him give his spiel, which was about Doctors Without Borders. I agreed to a one-time donation, and as I stood there filling out my information in his iPad, we got to chatting. I asked if he was a student, and then he asked what I do.

“I work with writers,” I told him. Before I could say another word he lit up. “You mean, like, with writing books?!” I laughed. “Yes, among other things. Why, are you writing a book?”

Not one, but seven, he told me, but he feels stuck because he doesn’t have people to share his writing with, doesn’t know about self-publishing, and wishes he had some community he could trust and learn from and with.

He asked if I have a writing group.

As a matter of fact…

I need to order new business cards, so I told him my website, showing him the home page and how he can contact me. The very website I had earlier today been focused on improving, until I returned to the essential fact that I am already doing the work! And the work’s more important than the website.

He said he’d have a look and get in touch.

Before we parted ways, he asked my name, extending his hand.

“Jena,” I told him, “with one n. What’s yours?”

“Yeshaq, with a q.”

Nice to meet you, Yeshaq.

On Being a Mensch

Metal Art by Jon Grauman

This morning, I’m thinking about how we are steeped in a culture that worships saviors and skewers villains, that rides into the sunset on a high-horse of good guys and bad guys.

The great American narrative rests on oversimplification, which by definition erases and denies whole swaths of experience and truth.

Celebrity and consumer culture get in bed together to back this up, and they both rely on us thinking we’re not enough and/or our lives are something to improve or escape.

Writing, art, and leadership that ask more of us, that mirror our capacity to grapple with truth and nuance, are more critical and life-giving than ever.

Who or what calls forth and mirrors your multifaceted brilliance, your innate complexity, your ability to think intelligently and act conscientiously?

Who or what banks on your reactivity or self-loathing?

Who or what feeds on your inclination to judge and condemn?

Who or what preys on hero-worship and wins every time you abdicate personal responsibility?

In Yiddish, the word mensch — something we think of as an exceptionally “good” person — simply means “person.” And to truly be a person, a mensch, requires a degree of self-reflection, awareness, integrity, and discernment.

Today I’m going to pay attention to what I’m paying attention to. Where am I choosing — and where am I asleep?

The Privileges and Perils of Snowdays

Pearl wanted to spend the snow day playing over at his dad’s community, and since it was early in the storm, I agreed to bring him over there this morning (knowing that he may end up staying the night). We drove through campus at about 10 miles per hour — counting cars along the way (fewer than a dozen over three miles).

We talked about who gets the day off and who doesn’t, what work places are closed and which aren’t, whether businesses and companies necessarily put their employees’ safety first, and the fact that for people who are paid by the hour — as opposed to receiving a salary — a day like this can mean simply no money coming in.

The weather itself takes me back to my early childhood in Buffalo, New York; this is how I remember winter: swirling, grey, gusty, white, deep, powder, trudge, snowpants, sledding, fun. And I’m happy for all the happy kiddos who get to enjoy that today.

I’m also aware that for many folks, with or without children, extreme weather can be hugely stressful and sometimes dangerous.

I just read a Facebook status that someone’s husband had no choice but to drive to work — from a rural area, no less — lest he lose his temp job.

Another local friend shared a photo in which he seemed to be wearing every item of clothing he owned, as his building was without heat.

Frozen pipes, power outages, elderly folks who live alone, homeless shelters at capacity… I sit here in my apartment watching the chaotic conditions outside the windows, at once thankful for warmth, physical safety, and sustenance and also acutely aware that the growing intensity of storms in every season means loss, instability, and dangerous conditions locally and globally alike.

Sometimes I do wonder what the point is of reflecting on this stuff if I’m not actively offering solutions. It’s one reason I’ve stopped sharing as many news stories; you all know where and how to find them, and my clicking “share” willy-nilly isn’t going to change a thing when it comes to the latest tweet or injustice.

But who am I if I don’t reflect, if I don’t try to make sure my own kids are aware of the greater impact and implications of something as seemingly simple and even fun as a snow day?

And so it comes down to what I perceive as a moral responsibility for anyone living in relative comfort, with the privilege of employment that can withstand the weather and a warm place in which to ride out the storm: To stay awake to the inequities among us, to stay compassionate towards those more vulnerable to the elements, and to identify even small measures we can and must take to support and see each other through.

Forgive Yourself for Each Time

Photo: Zoltan Tasi

For each time the words flew out of your mouth and you wished you could unsay them.

For each time you remained silent, only to wonder why you swallowed knives.

For each time you searched for but couldn’t find the perfect thing to say, and so you just sat with her, put your hand over his, kept company that which could not be consoled.

For each time your kids proved wiser than you (“she will see it as support later”).

For each time you hung up the phone and immediately wanted to call back to say, “I love you.”

For each time you were sure you’d fucked things up for good. For each time you learned to forgive yourself. For each time you spoke your heart with no way of knowing how it would be received — if at all. For each time you felt the ache of the world in your sinus cavity, your chest cavity, your belly — all of the hollow places where the body fills with breath, with longing.

Last night, you dreamed of a kitchen in a small apartment. It was elevated, modest in size, painted all white, and brightened by sunlight. A bank of windows overlooked sparkling blue, blue water in the distance. It was such a peaceful space, and you’d lived there once though you couldn’t remember when.

Standing there overcome by longing, you didn’t know if you could stand the leaving again. But you had to and you did, waking to a new day and a world of bright beauty and impossible pain, determined not to worry about getting it right but instead to be present. To love without interfering, to support without the pretense of saving, and to know that you aren’t here to be a saint but a person.

Today, you notice what quickens your pulse. What makes your stomach drop. What gives you a glimmer of hope and what seemed to urgent yesterday that you can simply set aside. You let the bread rise under its damp covering and the child grow towards her own sources of light. You learn, just a little bit, to let things be, thus becoming more available to what actually needs tending.

In the words of Ernest Hemingway, “Go all the way with it. Do not back off. For once, go all the goddamn way with what matters.”