Why I Didn’t March

“One of the things that has to be faced is the process of waiting to change the system, how much we have got to do to find out who we are, where we have come from and where we are going.” ~ Ella Baker

I was drinking my coffee in bed when Aviva texted me. “I’ll totally understand if you say no,” she wrote, “but could you bring my curling iron?” She was at her dad’s, getting ready for the march in Northampton and, right after, the bus to visit her peeps in NYC. I made a quick decision to tie in the favor with a walk in the woods near her dad’s house, and said I’d be over around 9:00am.

I didn’t march on Saturday.

Instead, I walked. After I dropped off the coveted hair implement and gave V a big hug, I walked up a hill and then took a right onto the Robert Frost trail. The woods were snowy and silent, and the solitude and physical movement felt like their own form of radicalism. I followed the trail around the pond and across the road. I walked over a little footbridge, pausing to take a short video of the rushing creek below. A bouncy pitbull stopped to say hi.

I wound up on the train tracks, where I did an impromptu photo shoot. It reminded me of being a teenager; remember being totally immersed in where you were and what you were doing? That kind of fun and creativity that feel effortless? Like that. Then — my ass cheeks cold through denim from crouching against steel — I stopped in at the Cushman market to get a latte and a breakfast sandwich. I bumped into a friend and chatted for a few minutes.

By the time I reached my car, it was 10:30am. I’d been out for about two hours, and suddenly it hit me: The tired. The whole body ache. The warning signals. LAY LOW, my body whimpered. I came home, took a hot shower, and climbed into bed.

Did I decide not to march because I wasn’t feeling well? That would be an easy conclusion to draw. Not untrue. But also not the whole truth. And to claim otherwise would be a lie, one I can only imagine telling out of fear that I am being a lousy feminist, and that my many friends who marched — folks of many genders, races, ages, and creeds, people I love and respect — will criticize me or, worse, think I’m criticizing them. That is not the case.

In fact, it is the very ferocity of my feminism and my belief in our collective commitment and ability to grow and change and do better that underscored the decision, which I had all but made even before the vague cold symptoms began. I write this trusting that this isn’t an either/or. It’s an opportunity to expand and push the conversation, and so as not to coddle my own — or anyone else’s — fragility.

*  *  *

I’ve spent a good amount of time over the past two days, looking at photos from marches around the country and reading various articles and essays — particularly those by women of color about pink pussy hats, and how they continue to symbolize a movement dominated by white cisgender women. Pieces like If you have a death grip on your pink pussy hat, you’re marching for the wrong reason by Lecia Michelle and this powerful poem by Leslé Honoré.

I read and rested for the remainder of Saturday. I looked at my daughter’s photos on Instagram of herself and my son, proudly holding up the signs they’d made. Rising Voices Not Seas, read Aviva’s, her original artwork and lettering filling me with pride.  At 15, my girl wears her rainbow flag around her neck, draped behind her like the cape of the superhero she is. Pearl, 11, smiled behind his sign: There is no one alive that is youer than you. And yes, he wore a punk pussy hat, a fact that wasn’t lost on me.

Does he know that to many women of color and transwomen, the hat is an offense, proof of a defensive refusal to listen to our sisters (and, as Desiree Adaway writes, “not just cisters”) of color when they point out that “feminism” has for too long meant “white” feminism, and that without true intersectionality, without addressing white supremacy and the ways in which white women are in fact protected by the very patriarchy we’re protesting, we are not ever going to get anywhere new? I don’t think he knows this.

My children are continuously learning that their voices matter, not more than other people’s and not less, either. Marches and protests can be great infusions of energy and help remind us we’re not alone.

But it’s the conversations we have in our homes, over breakfast and dinner, in the car on the way to the mall or a game, and in response to the situations that arise daily all around us that are the real basis for sustainable change.

*  *  *

One thing I have learned is that marching, for me, doesn’t require any courage. But to be trans, to be a trans woman of color, to be black in a country where being black is something the white gaze will define for you, no matter your class or gender or station in life, no matter the decade or zip code or salary — these are realities that many white, cisgender women simply do not face.

Does that  mean white women shouldn’t march, protest, resist, write, holler, lobby, run for office, and fight like hell? Not even a little bit.

But it does mean that we need to recognize that by NOT recognizing the impact of our whiteness, we’re maintaining a status quo that desperately needs to change. And by desperately, I mean: Lives are at stake. Freedom of expression is at stake. Physical and emotional safety are at stake, for all women, yes, but compounded by race and gender norms for women of color and transwomen in ways that need to be believed, valued, and centered in our efforts.

My whiteness absolutely informed my decision not to march this weekend.

I admit, I felt a twinge of guilt, a pang of “should.” What kind of example am I setting for my kids if I am not there, fist in the air, boots pounding the pavement with them? (And in full disclosure: They were with their dad this weekend; he went with them to the march, along with my middle sister, my brother-in-law, and some of their other family members. If they had been with me on Saturday, would I have gone to the march? Most likely, yes. Would that have changed anything I’m writing tonight? No. Would we have talked about this? You better believe it.)

*  *  *

The first photo I have of myself marching is from 1991. North Pleasant Street in Amherst, Massachusetts, protesting the Gulf War. I felt powerful and mighty. Feminist bumperstickers from the hole-in-the-wall hippy bookstore covered the inside of my bedroom door. I was woman: Hear me roar! I am as disgusted and outraged by the current state of affairs as my pussy-hat-wearing sisters.

But if we are not equally disgusted and outraged by the way racism gets sidelined, the way women of color are silenced and muzzled — often by white women who want only to celebrate a “oneness” that is, quite simply, not a reality for non-white, non hetero, non cisgender women — and the way many self-identified liberal white women call any criticism of the movement “divisive” and “counterproductive,”  we’re in even deeper trouble.

I don’t have answers. I am as complicit in a society that favors and protects me because of my skin color — I can, after all, choose whether to self-disclose my identity as a Jew or as a gay woman. But I am seeing, more plainly with each passing day I devote to reading, learning, listening, and self-reflecting, that denying the power of my unconscious whiteness perpetuates oppressive systems. Systems that need to be named and, brick by brick, dismantled.

*  *  *

Instead of marching, I read When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan Cullors and asha bandele, co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. I saw a brain-candy movie with my wife and went to bed early. I reposted photos of my kiddos on Facebook. They looked good out there and I was unabashedly proud of them. I also pray and will do everything I can to ensure that they both continue to become ever-more invested in the collective liberation from misogyny, transphobia, and racism that hurt us all — but not equally.

Without intersectionality, we’re just making our voices hoarse.

It is time to take a step back — sans pink hats — not from confronting and overturning the powers that be, but in the name of shifting a power dynamic that has centered whiteness for… ever.

Strangled Roots and More Than One Kind of Silence

Photo: Kyle Ellefson

So often I begin with morning light. Today, I began with Facebook video calling me — after I had snoozed the alarm. A 14-hour time difference makes scheduling calls with a writer in Australia an interesting challenge; my client was in her bed, sleepy after an evening meditation, just as I was leaping out of mine to throw on a robe and pour some coffee.

One of the things that struck me most in our conversation was this: Too many of us wait. We wait until we feel more confident, more qualified, more ready. We wait because we’re afraid that not everyone will like what we have to say or write (they won’t). We wait because there are other people saying and writing these things better than we ever will. We wait, and in the waiting, our insights, our observations, our wisdom, our lived experience, our questions, and our ideas all stay in our heads.

I picture roots in a too-small pot, growing around themselves. While some plants prefer to be pot-bound (my mom told me this recently, when she stopped by and saw the succulents she’d transplanted years ago, thriving in their original pots on my windowsill), others will eventually suffer from confinement, strangling themselves rather than having room to grow. I imagine the same may be true for what is inside of us. At what point do thoughts need to be transcribed, translated, shared, and explored outside the container of inner exploration?

Never, perhaps. There’s no rule here, no should.

But this morning, I’m considering the very real possibility that the gnarled internalization of self-doubt is a form of collective gaslighting, particularly among groups who’ve experienced outer oppression. If you’re told enough times that what you have to say isn’t true, what you’ve experienced isn’t real, and that when it comes to what you see happening all around you, you’re overreacting, little by little, you’re bound to start questioning your own voice. What could you possibly have to contribute?

* * * * *

As the masks come off, as the veneers chip away, as the statues come down, and as the ugliness around us is more and more exposed, it’s inevitable and necessary to face the ways in which we’ve unknowingly swallowed the poison and internalized beliefs that hurt us and each other.

As a white woman, this means looking at my own racism — the thoughts, beliefs, and actions that may be so unconscious and so subtle that I would have denied them altogether in the past.

It means looking at the fears I’ve had of speaking up, the way my own nervous system goes into high alert in the fact of perceived conflict. It means acknowledging that I have experience I can trust, and also there is much I don’t know. Both are true.

It means acknowledging and writing from the truths of my own intersectionality. I identify as queer, and I see and feel on a daily basis the ways this sets me apart from heteronormative expectations and status quo. I am self-employed. I have no boss. I answer to myself. It was during a brief stint in the private sector that I was more aware of my gender that in any other job; women in positions of leadership were undermined in ways both nuanced and overt but difficult to call out. (It’s also the one time I’ve been laid off).

I’m acutely aware of the ways in which my people have internalized trauma and also have assimilated and benefited from being white immigrants, thus perpetuating a racial divide even while seeking to heal it.

I grew up with economic and educational privilege, and there are ripple effects to not embodying previous generations’ norms. That said, my lineage is both a gift and a burden, one I’m continuously examining and delving into more deeply. What wisdom do my ancestors have for me, and where must I peel away? When is a diversion actually a form of continuity?

Jewish tradition, in particular and in my estimation, embraces the relevance of context — culturally, politically, sociologically. We look to tradition as the basis for change, rather than as a too-small pot in which our roots slowly suffocate.

* * * * *

Privilege is being able to opt out: It doesn’t affect me. It’s not my problem. That’s awful for them — whoever “they” may be. Sometimes not saying anything is easier, sometimes safer.

There are plenty of situations where silence is self-preservation, and I feel compelled to say as much. But that’s exactly why people who benefit from systems of oppression need not only to listen to those who’ve been silenced, but also to speak up.

I’ve read a few articles lately about “call-out culture.” Last night, I found myself reacting to a post by a coach — not someone I know personally. The implication was along the lines of “we create our own reality” and that pain can be the basis for healing. My immediate reaction was, THIS IS EVERYTHING THAT’S WRONG WITH WHITE FEMINIST SELF-HELP CULTURE.

I read it to Mani. I’ll admit that it felt good for a moment, the self-righteousness. But rather than leaving it at that, I decided to learn a little more. Something happened as I read more of her copy: I saw myself. I saw the ways in which I, too, am working with women to dismantle the ways we’ve internalized the patriarchy.

And I had no choice but to ask myself: Where are my blind spots?

Calling each other out — or in, if you prefer — is critical. And we also have to keep asking ourselves hard questions. The former is just a performance without the latter.

* * * * *

There are 10,000 threads here. This stops me from starting at all. It’s too big, I tell myself. I’m all over the place. How is this helpful? I’m just another white woman taking up too much room.

But therein lies a place where the roots need to grow. On the one hand, the myth of too-much has been used to silence women. On the other hand, as a white woman, I DO need to be quiet — not because my voice doesn’t matter, but because the voices of women of color matter, too, and have been strangled, smothered, suffocated, and suppressed in ways that mine hasn’t.

This is intersectionality. This is complexity. This is not a binary of privilege and oppression nor is it a hierarchy of suffering. It’s a willingness to outgrow small spaces, to risk writing and inviting conversation even if not everything I’m saying is fully formed and perfectly expressed. It’s saying: This is a matter of life and death. This is a matter of the reality we are ALL creating — and perhaps more importantly, undoing.

* * * * *

Am I choking on my roots or are they propelling me to grow and thrive? Who is watering the plants?

* * * * *

I have no neat and conclusive way of ending this post, except to say that I’m hearing more than one kind of silence. The fearful kind, that tells me to be careful — there could be repercussions. The complicit kind, that doesn’t want to rock the boat, get it wrong, or look at the ways in which I’m responsible for this mess we’re in. And the listening kind, where I acknowledge how much I have to learn and unlearn.

Which one do you relate to most — and if you take the time to listen, what do you hear?

My America

Photo: Kayle Kaupanger

To all of my friends across the globe, to the north and the south. To the east and west: This is not the America I represent. My America has open arms, minds, and hearts. My America says, come in, how can I help? My America insists on justice for all and the beauty of truth. My America takes responsibility for its hypocrisy and sets about making things right. My America is accountable for so much death and destruction. My America makes amends. My America says I’m so sorry. My America says, we were wrong. My America says, here, let’s unmask the myths of opportunity and put all that love of money where our hungry mouths are. America, my America, says, we didn’t think of it first, or even second or third. My America says, let me redistribute, give you back your rivers and farms. My America says, I am a bully. I am an abuser. I am an addict. I am a victim. I am I am I am I am. My America says, it has been about me for too long. My America says, how are you? I’m listening. My America says, I was a kleptomaniacal sales rep thug wearing a nice suit. My America says, I’m checking myself into rehab. My America says, your body is not an abomination. My America says, all languages spoken here, translators will be provided free of charge. My America says, I am handing over the mic. My America says, you’ve heard enough from me. My America says, women always seem to come up with the best solutions. My America says, queer bodies deserve safety, black and brown bodies deserve safety, undocumented bodies deserve safety, children’s bodies deserve safety. My America says, I have been so arrogant. My America says, enough. Enough. Enough.

Tangled (new poem)

Photo: Krista Mangulsone

Trickle of sweat between breasts
down the insides of thighs
underarms, lower back — I wake
this way every single morning,
tangled in soaked sheets and you.

This, the same body I lived in-
side of when a boy, Maceo,
pointed out my pert nipples
during gym class, when I showered
at camp and stole glimpses
at the older girls — the way
their bellies rose ever so
slightly between hip bones.

I thought I was comparing
all that time. I thought I wanted
their bodies, but not like that —
I thought, if only I looked like
that, like her or her or her.
In fact, I did want their bodies
tangled around mine, lying
around someone’s bedroom
listening to Joni Mitchell
or Phoebe Snow or Bob Dylan.

If I could go back and disentangle
the messages I received then,
the ones that made queer weird
and gay something not even
on the radar, if I could go
and tell my gorgeous young self
something, it would go
like this: Eat the food, kiss the girl.
Fill up on pleasure and meat
and skip a class or two and
you don’t have to be the cold,
quiet moon.

Anyway. I don’t go back, I don’t
say these things. I don’t tangle up
with how things were because
there is no rewriting history, only
learning from it — or so they say.
They say a lot of things. Maybe
that was the problem —
their voices so loud in my head
that I could not listen
to my own poetry unless
I was all the way alone,
and solitude swallowed me like
a snake eats its own tail,
like a story the digs its own
burial plot.

And so I rise now,
sweaty, hair tangled, legs tangled
with a woman who knows me
from the inside out.
I rise and step into the shower
and run my hands over where
my belly rises now between hip bones,
breasts round, skin soft
from the wear of years,
no longer comparing myself
to who I wasn’t but coming,
little by little, finally after all these
tangled years, all the way
into this being.

It’s uncomfortable
and downright squirmy sometimes —
old angry voices from the past
don’t like being tossed
to the wolves. But I do
just that, make an offering
of what once ruled my life,
all of the demands, the vicious
not-enoughness that plagued
me into chronic restlessness.
I watch as they tear into
the tangle of sinew and bone
and artery, standing back
and seeing what will become
of all that I am no longer am.

Cloudy with a Chance of Global Uprising

For Aviva

Foul mood overtakes the afternoon
despite the laying on of hands
and all good intentions
Fire belly eclipses tender heart
forcing eruption of vitriol through veins
a revolt with no room for shame
a dam useless against this mighty flow
like blood flowing like pussy riot
like do not fuck with us women
like you can’t disappear us that easily
or at all like No means No like my body
my choice like Black Lives Matter like
I’ll show you my papers when you show
us your tax returns like no I don’t want to
hold hands across the aisle not today
not tonight not tomorrow where were you
reaching for mine for the last eight years
Exactly
Compassion and kindness do not mean
not angry no they mean angrier they mean
business they mean this is not a test
they mean we will not be silenced
they mean your lies will not protect you
from the people they mean we cannot
be bought or gaslit they mean light
so bright your darkness will swallow you
whole they mean we will rise up rise up
I was quiet all day
Didn’t watch the news was determined
not to give it my two minutes not to throw
in my two cents not to throw in the towel
on hope my anger rises because hope
and anger are brothers because my love
and my anger are fraternal twins
because I am a mother whose grandmothers’
cells live inside of me whose children’s
cells live inside of me whose grandchildren’s
cells live inside of me because weeping
and this anger are not opposite
and I will oppose I will defy I will cry
I will become something violent
though I thought this is not my way
I thought I am a peace seeker but how
can I seek peace when on Day One
you strip me from your pages
write us off write us out speak in shallow
teleprompted sentences to vapid applause
My daughter cried all day
because Business as Usual slapped her
in the face because climate change
is 50 degrees in January because her body
bleeds and you say she belongs to any man
who would I can’t finish that thought
Eclipse of positivity because good vibes
will not save us now no now it’s time
to listen to the people who’ve been saying
this for so long so long too long rise up
listen to us we will not become your sheep
nor will we satisfy you by tearing each other
apart no we have to come together
we have to channel this anger
that could power a nation
keep the lights on all night and through
the warming winters
energy coursing through the body
live wire current sweeping away with it
any last vestiges of playing along
an unwinnable game
gloves off let’s be all in all of us
all in and in it together