In lieu of a primal scream

Photo: Jerry Kiesewetter

In lieu of a primal scream
to the government
the two-party system
one big clusterfuck
of power grabs
and corporate lobbies
with some idealistic
individuals in the mix
who are still close
to why they wanted
to go into politics
in the first place
not because their daddy
before them
held the seat
but because they watched
their community
drown in debt
while block after block
got snatched up
by developers
while their schools
crumbled and kids
went hungry
and the water was filthy
and the eviction notices
came faster than paychecks
not because they had
the degree and the pedigree
but because
someone told them
a teacher a grandmother
a neighbor a big brother
that they were already
somebody
and don’t forget it
some people with a fire
in their belly
for something like fairness
or justice
something like visibility
or protection
something like advocacy
and insistence
something like a voice
in the hollow halls
of us and them
humans and monsters
children vilified
as future criminals
and living scarecrows limp
at the borders
where the days scorch
and the nights freeze
and entire families
were kept in freezers
without food or water
Who are the animals now,
tell me
Who are the ghosts
who are the monsters
In lieu of this scream
that will fill my own head
with more noise
I step outside
stand in the driveway
while the puppy pees
feel the first drops
of rain
on bare skin
my glasses wet now
cheeks wet
hands outstretched
the air colder
than yesterday
a mourning dove
with a twig lights up
to the seam of the roof
its babies waiting
somewhere nearby
for her return

* * *

DO NOT LET THIS VILE ADMINISTRATION ACT AND SPEAK ON OUR BEHALF.

TAKE ACTION.

Call you representatives and implore them to put pressure on the administration. Find your reps’ numbers.

ACLU immigration fund or the National Immigration Law Center.

Read “What you should know about the thousands of missing, abused and exploited immigrant children in the USA, and what you can do about it.”

All Hands on Deck

Photo: Stijn Stinnen

Oh tender heart for all who weep
and angry heart for those unseen
I dreamed about original wounds
and something healing came in the form of writing
Details elude me but I woke knowing something
had occurred, something in sleep needed heeding

Calling in the red hot and the true blue
calling in the close calls and the collision courses
calling in the blind eyes and the willful deniers
calling in you who would look away
and you who risk everything to offer sanctuary

The question isn’t when did discrimination become
the basis for policy making
but when was it ever not this way
and how can we claim progress when our bodies
are on the chopping block and our minds
are being held for ransom and we move from
one news cycle to the next
six seconds per person
forgetting last week’s outrage because this week’s is worse
how can that be
and how can we breathe
when there isn’t even time to pause and grieve?

Gone are the days of the 6:30 news when I was a kid
and my parents would spend 30 minutes in the TV room
listening to those soothing, familiar anchors
but whose news made the cut? What looked like unity
was not a lack of divisiveness but a lack of representation

We need to be talking, yes.
We need to be talking in person, in living rooms
in places of worship in the grocery store
in cafés and in the classroom
in the lakes and rivers diverted for dollars
in the casinos and dance halls and movie theaters
on buses and in gated communities on farms
and on city councils and in the halls of justice
where justice is in a chokehold while we look on
feeling helpless

To succumb to helpless paralysis cannot be the way
forward
though in this chaos I have little to offer
and it’s easy to feel small, frozen, flinching.
Do something do anything
Attend a meeting, make a call, talk to a neighbor,
broach the uncomfortable, pick up the phone, write a letter
read a book, challenge yourself
name the elephants in the room

As a teenager “keep your laws off my body” was
emblazoned
on the back of my closed bedroom door
bumperstickers, angsty emotional outrage
grown now into womanhood
maybe my teeth have gotten sharper
maybe my tolerance is done tolerating
settling for scraps and glass ceiling shards

Maybe I’m regressing before my very eyes
back to my roots
back to my original wound
the one I dreamed of healing by writing
the words flow like so much blood
and the stench is always somewhere else
and the hungry children are always somewhere else
and the oppression is always worse
for someone else

I must make it mine
take it all the way into my own body
knowing that these conditions render me, too
not free
me too, not at ease
me too, threatened
not too much
not going gently
or without a fight

taking all of this wholeness and all of the broken bits
and rather than flinging them haphazardly
and adding to the harm done
gathering, calling them in
calling myself home again
to really listen
for who to be
because the only thing
the ONLY thing I know for sure
is that this is all hands on deck time
and we can’t sit down
while the laws are quietly made
and trains roll steadily in

Poetry, Politics, and Privilege

I feel unequipped to write about politics.

But yesterday, I posted the following on Facebook:

Do you ever have to suppress the urge to ask someone if they voted for Trump? But a) it’s impolite and b) it’s none of my business and c) I don’t really want to know. Oy.

A thread of comments followed. Some were thoughtful and others flippant, but I appreciated the conversation, however dispiriting is may have been. At one point, I mused:

The more comments I read, the more I think, why bother knowing. I think the folks I wonder about most likely DID vote for him. And the fact is, I have not had a single productive conversation with a Trump voter since the election. I truly wonder if it’s possible.

In the midst of that online conversation, one Facebook friend messaged me that she’d lost a life-long friend because of their political differences. Another sent me a photo of the stop sign at the end of her street, with a swastika spray painted on it. She had just called the sheriff’s office. “I don’t trust any of them,” she wrote.

Today, I received another private message, from someone I don’t know well. This person, who has never commented on my writing before, wrote:

i’m a little surprised at your comments in the post that you made on trump at midnight last night. I’m a libertarian but I really try to understand both sides. Both sides have valid concerns. I’m surprised as a poet and writer that you wouldn’t dig a little deeper and try to understand what a huge chunk of this country is feeling right now. I don’t mean the fringe that both parties have at their edges. I mean what is underneath the support. There is both fear and idealism underneath both parties platforms. For you to give up kind of shocked me. Clearly your newsfeed reaches only those with a homogeneous view.

I was triggered by this, but also know enough about social media to recognize that it could very well have been written in good faith. It can be so hard to read tone, especially when you’ve had no other contact with someone. After several hours of consideration, I responded:

Your note gave me a lot to consider, and in fact, I am writing a blog post now exploring this further — so thank you. Nowhere did I say I was giving up, nor do I see it as my responsibility to welcome everyone’s view on my personal FB page.  

Sure enough, he responded that he meant no harm.

Today, I was in the dentist’s office.

I was making the kids’ six-month cleaning appointments. And the four women working at the reception desk behind the sliding glass windows were all lovely and kind and helpful. One of them, followed by two others, complimented my dress — the dress both kids poo-poohed earlier in the parking lot. We laughed about that. We wished each other a good weekend.

 Did they vote for Trump? They might have voted for Trump. If they did, are they pleased with how things are going? If they regret it now, what does that mean? Now what? Are they speaking out, talking to their friends and family?
 
I wanted to ask them. I don’t know what would happen if I did. If they said yes, would the be less lovely, kind, and helpful? What would change in that moment? Would I start ranting in the waiting room? Doubtful.
 
I suppose I would ask why. I want to believe this is possible, this seeing each other. This listening. But — and there is the “but.”
 
What about the xenophobic, misogynistic, embarrassing, homophobic, racist, tweeting, dangerous, isolationist, sociopathic, narcissistic, manipulative, unrelenting greed and ignorant dismantling of democratic ideals?
 
How does one reconcile overlooking or approving these? I don’t know if I can, friends. I just don’t know.
 
But I didn’t ask. It’s not done, right? And this is how we go through the days.
 
Who are we?
 

Here’s what I mean by unequipped.

Writing about this feels nearly impossible. But that is a cop-out. We can’t leave this kind of wrestling to the pundits and the experts. We all have bodies. We all need air and water and food that’s not poisoned and health insurance and safety and education and legal protection. And by all, I do mean ALL. 

This is where I have such a difficult time staying open, since a vote for Trump essentially said, no, not all. Just some of us.
 
I am neither a journalist nor a spokesperson for anything. I am a mother and a poet. I am Jewish and queer. I am white and was born to parents with higher degrees and the means to provide me and my sisters with private education.
 
Truth be told, I generally interact with very few people whose political and moral beliefs vary dramatically from my own. When a woman in one of my writing groups shared that she had voted for Trump — the week of the election — I tried to create space for her writing, only to be personally attacked. In a word: It sucked. 
 

Is it my job as a poet not to have strong opinions?

Is it my job as a woman to be a nice hostess and make sure everyone is comfortable? Not everyone is going to be comfortable. God knows I’m not comfortable speaking up in this way when in fact I shy away from confrontation, suck at debate, and generally love it when everyone’s getting along. This is not my forte, people. 

And yet here I am, writing. I am writing because this is such sticky and difficult terrain, and we are all walking on the same ground — which is crazy, given how little ground we seem to share within these borders. I am writing, because I fear for my children’s future, and for the children who are learning from their teachers, parents, siblings, peers, and role models in office that bullying and hatred are American values. I am writing, because climate change is accelerating and we’re the frogs in the pot and our president just nominated a climate change skeptic to USDA’s top science post.

I am writing because I care so fucking much.

I have no answers.

I am a bundle of fear and rage and love and confusion. I went for a run this morning, and I looked at each person’s face I passed by. A delivery guy. An older gentleman walking his dog. A woman with a briefcase waiting for the light. A man smoking a cigarette on a bench. A child watching in awe as the firetruck backed out of the station, holding his grandfather’s hand. I ached.

What do we do with the ache, with the love, with the rage, with the fear?

How do we listen?

Not for the Faint of Heart

exlq3elikm8-annie-sprattDo you ever use the expression “not for the faint of heart”?

Love’s not for the faint of heart. Writing’s not for the faint of heart. Politics aren’t for the faint of heart. Self-employment? Definitely not for the faint of heart. Raising kids? You guessed it. Marriage isn’t for the faint of heart. Revolution is most certainly not for the faint of heart. Anything requiring discipline, from training for a marathon to working on a manuscript? Not for the faint of heart. Working more than one job? You’re getting the idea.

In other words, Reality is not for the faint of heart. Life is not for the faint of heart.

To leave it at that, though, strikes me as woefully insufficient.

What the hell is for the faint of heart, then? Anything and everything? That doesn’t ring true, either. Too simplistic, too broad of a stroke.

“Not for the faint of heart” carries a vague implication that whatever the thing is, it’s a choice. Something you might want to think twice or five times about before getting yourself in too deep, or into at all.

This is premised on a degree of privilege that is simply not shared by all people. Living paycheck to paycheck is not for the faint of heart, nor do I know many people who “choose” this, as if it’s a lifestyle. Poverty is not for the faint of heart, but it’s also not exactly something anyone signs up for.

Being transgender is not for the faint of heart. Same could be said of being a person of color. These are not choices a person makes, though they may in fact determine a great deal about how an individual is perceived, judged, and treated.

Do circumstances, character, or a combination thereof determine whether a person is “faint of heart”? And what is its opposite? “Courageous” of heart?

Consider this: The notion of “courage” means very different things to different people.

If you are perceived as “marginal” when seen through the lenses of dominant cultural norms (read: white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, middle class), being “courageous” might look like doing your day — going to work, sending your kids to school on the bus, picking up some groceries, walking the dog in the park.

These everyday and seemingly mundane and “safe” activities become something that is — wait for it — not for the faint of heart. Getting up in the morning, putting on a brave face for small people or a poker face for a harsh world — every single day is a series of moments that are implicitly not for the faint of heart.

Acknowledging this places things like the choice to be self-employed, or the inevitable ups and downs of intimacy in a culturally sanctioned relationship, for example, in a different light. It’s not that the challenges of these aren’t valid. It’s just that I’m becoming more aware of how language reflects privilege or lack thereof — be it based on race, sexual orientation, gender expression, class, ability, or one of the countless ways in which these intersect and to a large degree determine how the world sees and treats us.

It’s true for me, that not having a steady paycheck is not for the faint of heart. It requires tremendous reserves (which sometimes I have to dig deep to tap) of trust. But I also live with an incredibly privileged assumption, which is that I *could* start looking for and applying for jobs. There’s no guarantee whatsoever I’d land a good one that could support my family, but I have the education, resume, and references that no matter how you cut it reflect a great deal of privilege.

Putting myself out there — on a blog, on Facebook, as a writer, as a coach, as a group leader — these are not for the faint of heart. I regularly find myself “outside of my comfort zone,” and at this point it’s a combination of choice and necessity that I keep on.

The stakes are plenty high on the one hand (groceries, yo). On the other hand, we are not digging for pennies in between couch cushions (though Mani has lived this), nor are we one month away from eviction if things get slow; we’d have two at least, and the truth is I have good credit and that’s also a privilege.

More things that aren’t for the faint of heart: Honesty about privilege. Writing what’s real instead of worrying about what’s “trending” (ugh) is not for the faint of heart. Asking for help, receiving, paying attention to what you truly want and need. In pointing out these areas of privilege, my intention is not to shame (myself or others) but to NAME things that are true.

I was born into an upwardly mobile, white, Jewish, artistic, academic family. That was not a choice. But what I DO with this privilege, how it shapes my actions and values, work, parenting, and writing — this is a choice. We do not need more white guilt or fragility or hand-wringing, but responsibility. And guess what? (I bet you guessed it already.) Taking responsibility is NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART.

By writing and sharing the way I do, I am putting my heart in your hands. Not literally, of course, but that is how it feels some days, to show up and figure out how to convey in language these things that I think about. My hope is that this is not so much naval-gazing but something of use, something that might get you seeing your own places of not being faint of heart, in new ways.

Last night, lying in bed watching “Luke Cage,” I mentioned to Mani that this idea of “not for the faint of heart” was on my mind. “Isn’t everyone ‘not faint of heart’?” I asked her, thinking of the quote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” She responded without a blink: “I think plenty of people are faint of heart.”

What immediately came to mind were images of everyday German citizens who became an army of people “just following orders.” To me, that is the full expression of being faint of heart: Being unwilling or afraid to speak up in the face of injustice, ineptitude, and horrifying denigration of human rights.

In riffing on President-Elect Trump’s choices so far for his highest-ranking cabinet members, Trevor Noah on The Daily Show said: “It’s almost like before Trump hires anyone, he googles ‘opposite of’ and then just gets that person,” Noah suggested. This kind of “comedy” is not for the faint of heart.

My respect for anyone and everyone who continues to speak up, fight, write, joke, petition, organize, create, and teach in ways that refuse to be silenced by the incoming administration grows by the minute. Today, tomorrow, next week — again, Noah said it best: ““What makes it worse than a roller coaster is that this ride is going to be four years long. And the scariest thing is, we’re still just waiting in the line. The ride hasn’t even started yet!”

Truth.

This is not the time to be faint of heart. Get strong, people. In whatever ways you can. If you, like me, come from a place of relative privilege, this is going to mean being uncomfortable, doing it anyway, and remembering that it’s not about you. It’s about doing the right thing, and the next right thing, and when you’re not sure what that is, not being faint of heart but instead asking people who do know. It’s about taking rest, yes, when you need to, but also recognizing that there’s a difference between self-care and self-check-out.

These times, this world, oh. It really isn’t for the faint of heart. I want with everything I am to believe that we’re in it together — and also see all the ways in which this is so clearly not true and never has been. The least we, I, can do, is to stand on the right side of history as it continues to unfold, so that one day, God willing, when my kids’ kids ask me what I did to stop this inexorable tide towards world destruction, I will be able to say I tried.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)

An Open Letter to Trump Supporters

mailboxes2Dear Trump Supporter I Don’t Know I Know:

Knock, knock.

No, this is not a joke.

Since I’m not able to go canvassing in neighboring New Hampshire, this is basically my virtual equivalent of going door to door. I am not writing this as an invitation to ANY political debate. What I am doing is writing this open letter to my Facebook friends and blog readers, in case there are some Trump voters among you.

Last night I dreamed that someone shit in my office. I mean, I walked into my office and was at first confused, and then upset and disgusted, to see shit, literally a pile of it on the floor, smears of it, bits of shit on my leather jacket. Even the furniture had been moved around. It wasn’t clear if this had been some kind of bizarre accident or a really nasty and twisted act of aggression, but either way I felt almost paralyzed, unable to figure out how to confront the situation, where to even begin the clean up. I could barely face it, and I couldn’t bear to face it alone. I called in a few colleagues and they were also shocked.

Lying in bed this morning, in that space between sleep and waking, I realized that this is what it feels like when I imagine that someone I know, someone I invite into my everyday life through social media, with a very open heart and mind by sharing photos and writing and snippets from my daily life and the work I care so much about, might be a Trump supporter.

Yes, I live in that big of a bubble that I don’t interact firsthand, knowingly, with anyone who’s planning to vote for Trump. But just as, on the flip side, many people may think they don’t know any gay or transgender people, it’s highly unlikely that that’s true — they just don’t know that they do.

I have 1,599 Facebook friends. I happen to remember that in 2010, I had 451 Facebook friends — I remember this because the number reminded me of the Ray Bradbury novel featuring that number, and also because I have a weird penchant for remembering numbers and associating them with different moments in my life. In other words, in the past six years, well over one thousand more people have become in some way, near and far, through work, writing, kids, and just random inexplicable internet connections, part of my world.

Now, it would seem that of this many people, there MUST be some Trump voters. What I wonder is: If you’re out there, do you just not actually read anything I post, or do our personal and political differences not bother you? Maybe you you keep quiet for other reasons?

If you frequently do read what I share here, or even more close to home, participate in my writing groups, your Trump vote feels not unlike you shitting in my house.

Stay with me here.

I know this is so awful and disgusting, but it IS awful and disgusting. I’m bothering to write and post this because I decided, at 4:30am, that if ONE PERSON decided to change their vote, even if you only do so in the privacy of that little voting both, it would be worth it to share my dream and to tell you how deeply personal this is. If you’re planning to vote for Trump, please reconsider.

Quoting my friend Wendy Wisner, a fellow Jewish mama with a German last name: “There are so many similarities between Hitler and Trump. It’s terrifying. And I will not stay silent about it anymore. I will not stay silent about hate, because I know in my bones how quickly hate can turn into so much more.”

Thank you for answering the door and not slamming it in my face. Thank you for taking the time to listen, to read this letter, and to really consider the power of your vote.

Jena