Real Talk Isn’t Easy

There is so much we don’t share, or write or even talk about. None of it is simple.

Navigating the territory between personal and political is a mighty task. In fact, it’s not a task at all but a life — with aspects that are and deserve to remain private, while also bearing responsibility for standing up and speaking out. The word “discernment” comes to mind.

Synagogue, Friday night services, welcoming Shabbat in community. Someone dear to me whispers in my ear something about Hondurans trying to cross the border, being treated like criminals. It’s safe to say most of the congregants in this sanctuary believe Trump is a nightmare. Many are actively working in the local sanctuary and anti-racism movements. There are a handful of Jews of color, as well.

“I feel like they’ve stolen our country,” she says.

Outwardly, I nod. Internally, my mind immediately races, in a way I’ve become accustomed to. Statements like this send me in so many directions at once, and I’ve been working to recognize the shortcoming of my heightened reactivity. Among the thoughts that fire like so many overheated neurons:

1. Agreement. Yes. This is not the America we (want to) believe in.

2. Disagreement. No, that America has never been.

3. Agreement. The way this administration is treating refugees and immigrants is unconscionable.

4. Pushback: This country’s relationship to refugees and immigrants has always been ambivalent — at best. Relevant, since we’re sitting in prayer: We turned Jews away from Europe during WWII.

5. More than one thing can be true at the same time. This one gets me every time. I’m working with and on it.

6. They stole the country from us? No, Europeans stole the country in the first place. It has never belonged to “us.”

7. Who is “us” and what is “our”? As Jennifer Harvey writes: “there is no non-racialized woman.” It’s imperative to keep this front and center — no matter your gender.

8. My own privilege — an upbringing in an upwardly mobile, financially secure, white, Jewish family, with strong emphasis on the arts, on education, and on inclusion. I was not raised to be “colorblind” but I also faced very few obstacles and none related to my skin color, religion, or class.

9. My father’s historical memory of anti-semitism. My mother’s historical memory of integration.

10. The limits and dangers of choosing to see mostly or only what we want to see: i.e. progress.

11. The way “progress” is a myth that makes liberal white Americans feel less helpless about racism, and how this keeps the focus on white comfort and not on reality.

Oof. See what I mean? And this is just a tiny sampler of the way my mind gallops. Not particularly productive.

* * *

Another moment: My son got tearful one day, when he was working on a school assignment and eliciting my help. Some of the suggestions I made pointed back to how race might factor into one’s choice of where to live.

“You always do this,” he said. “Everything is always about race or politics.”

The kid had a point. There is a thing called balance… maybe. And yet how do I prioritize balance when the world is so imbalanced? This feels to me like one of the biggest practical and spiritual challenges of our lifetimes.

I won’t apologize for my voice — nor do I want to be reactive. No one, of any age, can drink from a firehouse.

And yet my own words come back to me, words Omkari Williams echoed back to me during our conversation on her podcast recently: Don’t look away.

How do I live, write, parent, and love without looking away, while also not becoming a person who cannot take a breath, who cannot slow her racing mind, who cannot see anything without the glaring filters of injustice?

If we are closed to connection with the very person sitting next to us in the pew, how can we truly care about the stranger?

It would be so nice to say, “Love is the answer.” But what does that even mean? Platitudes will not suffice.

Our rabbi and congregation have been focusing on the mandate not to oppress the stranger. And so to not become strangers to those in our immediate circles and spheres of influence becomes intensely important and sometimes, for me, the most difficult thing of all.

One thing I know is that this is not about me being “good” at something. It’s about keeping the focus where it belongs, which is not a single point. The focus belongs on so many places at once: The big picture, the systemic oppression that has never not been present in our country, the feelings and needs and thoughts of those under my own roof, and the ability to take care of my mind rather than allowing the ugliness of what we know to be true to splinter me into a thousand broken pieces.

Healing cannot happen without justice. Justice will not happen without real talk, and real talk is, frankly, not easy. We all have relationships to navigate, those who may not see as we see.

The less insistent I am about being right and the more intent on moral courage and righteousness — individually and collectively — the clearer the task becomes: To keep doing the work that none of us alone can or will complete. To keep widening the circles while tending to the ones closest to us. To keep asking hard questions and not looking away, not backing away from the moments that make us most confused or agitated or fired up.

To step into that fire and learn.

What needs to burn? What good are these ashes? How are we each other’s keepers? What is it to really listen?

So many questions.

* * *

Desiree Lynn Adaway frequently quotes these lines from Assata Shakur’s autobiography:

It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.

In “The Hate U Give,” which I saw with Aviva last night, Starr, the main character, also quotes these words, over a loudspeaker in a profound moment of claiming her voice. We both sat there in the dark theater, crying.

I will not let those tears be in vain.

I will not let those tears be white tears, crocodile tears, or fragile tears. I will not abdicate my responsibility to fight for freedom — yours, mine, my children’s, your children’s — even if it makes you uncomfortable.

And I will also continue to practice quieting my mind and seeing myself in as honest a light as I can — which is to say, learning when to be quiet, when to be curious, and especially to remember to listen to people of color, to those whose lived experience of oppression is daily, cellular, and immediate. To put to use my ancestral and generational memory, while also knowing my place as someone with so much privilege.

That’s what I’ve got this morning. Thank you for reading, for wrestling with me, for staying in this for as long as it takes.

As long as it takes.

Now Is Not the Time to Shrink

Now is not the time to shrink.

Do not disappear into the woodwork.

If you need to disappear into yourself in order to remember what it feels like inside of your own body, do that. Do that, do that, by any means necessary. If you cannot take a day off or even an afternoon because you don’t have childcare or paid time off, brainstorm with a friend or with me. Figure out a way. By any means necessary.

Now is not the time to shrink.

Do you think of writing as a form of shrinking away from the world or a way of being more fully in it?

This seems to me a critical question today.

A writer friend asked me this morning, in a message on the Marco Polo app, “If you have any suggestions for resistance, or writers getting together and taking over the world and storming the White House, let me know.”

I wish I did. I really do. I have been thinking hard on this.I keep reaching the same conclusion, and it’s not sexy. It’s not new or radical or original. Here it is:

Keep going. Keep writing. Keep putting your stories down. Keep speaking up. Keep digging deep.

Staying connected to our own humanity, looking hard at our own places of trauma, recording our own moments of joy — all of this is what keeps a society afloat or at the very least helps us keep hope alive. “Keep hope alive” may sound trite given that babies are imprisoned, lawful, nonviolent protests are met by police in riot gear, and some who have been closest to oppression in this country are understandably bitter at the fact that all of a sudden, lots of folks are feeling scared and threatened.

But there it is. Keep hope alive. This is not the time to shrink.

Yesterday was undeniably tough. And today and tomorrow and many days to come, years, quite possibly decades and entire generations, are looking at tough times. This is a continuum. The America some of us (especially those with some variation of these identities — white, middle or upper class, able-bodied, Christian, male, cisgender, and heterosexual) have found to be a place of freedom and opportunity is showing its true colors. Its ugly, bloody, racist, greedy colors. Does it hurt? Yes. Is it frightening? Very. Is it new? No. Not new.

But now is not the time to shrink.

Coach Omkari Williams, wrote these words yesterday, and I keep returning to them:

“Do whatever you need to do to absorb this blow then get back in the fight. Our grandfathers and fathers didn’t fight wars abroad for this to be who we become at home. We have faced awful times before. Eyes on the ball. Stay in the fight.”

We have to stay focused. We have to stay in the fight not to protect only our personal liberties but each other’s. Especially each other’s. Because the truth is that the American Way has never, ever been fair. One child has access to world-class healthcare while another dies from a minor infection. One child has access to the best lawyers while another is appointed a public defender. One child has a fridge full of organic produce while another gets to school early for free breakfast. One child lives in a leafy neighborhood while another stays inside to be safe.

How a country treats its women and children, how a country treats its most vulnerable populations, is the true nature of that country.

So, how can I write such a thing and in the same breath say something as trite as “keep hope alive”?

Good question, really. I don’t know. But something in me says I must. Something in me, some fighting spirit, some fire, some deep-bellied, unblinking, fierce and remembering voice growls to an empty room: FIGHT.

Now is not the time to shrink.

Now is not the time to bash each other’s heads in for being the wrong kind of fighter, because truth be told, whether you’ve been at this your whole life or are just waking up to what’s been true all along, we need your voice and your body. We need you all in now.

Now is also not the time to dismiss “hope” as something shallow or useless. Sure, it may sound pretty in the first stanza of Emily Dickinson’s famous poem (#314). Don’t be fooled by the sweet-sounding language. She was a radical in a white dress.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

But keep reading. Listen. She was a smart one:

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

These are some gale-force winds we’re facing into. Keep hope alive.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

The chill in the air is enough to make you feel paralyzed. Frozen. But now is not the time to shrink away.  Now is a time to listen to the poets, those who saw through the structures of power and oppression on which this country built its wealth. I give you Langston Hughes:

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow. 

We do not need to look to other countries’ writers for guidance now. We only need to look to our own history. What we’re experiencing now is the rising of a wave that has been growing out at sea for centuries. If it feels like a tsunami, that’s because it is.

Now is not the time to shrink. Now is the time to assess.

What immediate steps must I take to secure the safety of my children? What immediate steps must I take to secure the safety of YOUR children? What immediate steps must I take to take care of my nervous system and physical body, so as not to crash and burn and be of no use to anyone? What immediate steps must I take to remember to breathe?

Breathe. Yes, breathe. Feel the air filling your lungs. Expanding your capacity to hold what keeps you going — oxygen — and release what is toxic — carbon dioxide. To breathe consciously is the basis for living consciously, and being conscious must be a cornerstone of writing, living, loving, and fighting through this wave of violence, fear, and rapid rolling back of the rights so many have given their lives to secure for the rest of us.

So if you have no idea what it means “not to shrink,” just start there.

Really. Right now. Don’t wait. This, too, is a kind of poem and a kind of fighting.

Inhale. 

Hold. 

Exhale. 

Pause. 

Again. 

And now, get out that journal, that notebook, that blank piece of paper. Open a new Word doc.

Start writing from this place, this place of tsunami, this place of fear, this place of anger, this place of not shrinking. Start with these words: “Now is not the time to shrink.” Seven words. Seven syllables. Say them out loud. Say them to the empty room. Lower your voice. Feel the vibration of your voice in your chest, your throat, the sounds leaving your mouth and entering the world.

We need that voice. YOUR voice.

We need it today and we are also going to need it tomorrow. So do not shrink. Do not be silent. Do not flail in fear. Stand on your feet. Get out your pen. And know that you are one of millions who are not turning their backs on this moment.

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?

Freedom Comes with Responsibility

Image from the Google homepage, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Freedom comes with responsibility.
Is this not what we teach our kids?
A kid fussing about washing dishes.
A mom tells her that a different mom
would shut that fussing down
and hand over a mop to do the floors next.

Freedom comes with responsibility.
Roll call.
Raise you hand and be counted.
Does every voice matter? Yes.
And you know when this really starts
to become apparent?
When we stop using ours.
When we resign ourselves to powerlessness.

Freedom comes with responsibility.
Not threats or secrecy.
Not preaching to the choir
or sneaking out out the side door
of integrity when you don’t know
the next right thing.

Freedom comes with responsibility.
Check yourself.
Hiding behind white or straight or cis is privilege.
It it a cowardly and self-serving
perpetuation of oppression.
But what about when safety comes into play —
is safety a privilege, too?

Freedom comes with responsibility.
I will not sit idly by.
My health insurance is not more important than your health insurance.
My kids’ education is not more important than your kids’ education.
My safety is not more important than your safety.
My spirit is not more sacred than your spirit.
My being is not more important than your being.
As long as “my” comes before “yours”
I will be tethered to distortions of freedom
by a rope that doubles as a noose.

Freedom comes with responsibility.
Find your fight.
Comfort in community is not the same as comfort in complacency.
Pick one thing if you have to and be a beacon.
If your own light has been so dulled
that your sight is compromised, spend time each day
with the soft cloth of clear seeing. Take care of your own eyes.

Freedom comes with responsibility.
Not for the faint of heart.
Take time today and every day to honor those who gave their lives for this,
for this freedom to speak, to resist, to insist, to denounce, to stand up, to be seen.
Think about the thousands, millions who died, whose names are gone,
whose faces have been passed down through generations,
who had no choice in the arrival,
who did not come to this land by choice,
who did not come to this land for opportunity,
for did not come to this land as equals or heirs.
Think of those who were displaced and dismantled
whose land was stolen and bloodied and renamed.

Freedom comes with responsibility.
My life is bound up with your life.
My heart is bound up with your heart.
My “my” is tethered to your “yours.”
I am my brother’s keeper and I am my sister’s safe haven.
You are your father’s son and your mother’s daughter.
Overthrow legacies of complicity and shine a light on injustice.

Freedom comes with responsibility.
For this is love.
This is our mighty task.
And we are living inside of history as it unfolds around us,
not as puppets or actors but as humans infused with more ability than we can ever know.
Do what it takes today and all the days to tap it.
To speak from that stream and to drink from that well
and to hold out your cupped hands
that another might splash cold water on her face.

We’ve got to keep waking each other up.
Freedom comes with responsibility.