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.

I’d Rather Be Real Than Popular

Photo: Jonatán Becerra

Do you ever feel like you should only share your writing when it’s happy, or when you’ve pored over it a thousand times? Do you ever only sit down to write when your sad? How do different moods affect your writing?

Tonight, I am just super down.

I know this is way amplified by PMS, and yes, I tend to come to this space every few months it seems around this time of the month. Is that wallowing? Whatever. Here I am. I ate half a pint of ice cream and it was so good. I read several articles about Trayvon Martin, who should have turned 23 a few weeks ago but didn’t because he was killed by a man who lives a free life today.

I have plenty of irrational fears. My fears have nothing to do with going out at night and wearing a hoodie, and this is important to note.

My fears are that if I have moods, if I’m not shiny and inspirational all of the time, people will not want to be around me. And if people don’t want to be around me, nobody will want to join my writing groups or work with me and I will stop making a living and we will be in deep doo-doo.

Really, my mind goes there in 2.2 seconds.

I told a very close friend over coffee last Friday morning about this, this persistent fear. I mean, it’s not a bad thing to be mindful of sustaining one’s income and providing for one’s family — ok, my income, my family — but that is a very different thing from fear.

This friend, I should mention, is a Buddhist. The real deal. And you know what she said? That it’s my resistance to the fear that is problematic, not the fear itself. So she suggested not resisting it.

I’m taking this to heart. And tonight, I’m doing the same with my heavy mood.

Honestly, if your mood was never heavy these days, I’d question what kind of person you are. On the other hand, too much empathy can be paralyzing. I think the thing might be to do what my friend advised, and not resist any of it. Hello, sadness. Hello, irritation. Hello, fear. Hello, hello. Come in. You can’t sleep in my bed with me and no way do you get to share my ice cream, but come and we can sit together for just a little while.

What do you have to tell me? I’m listening.

Oh, I see. It starts with that deep breath. And just feeling feelings. Feeling the weight of the body here on the couch. Closing my eyes for a moment.

The moment I feel the feelings, this thing happens: I remember that while there is so much that needs my attention, there is, in this moment, no action to take. The urgency to fix things can get in the way of remembering who I am. Same goes for doing, doing, doing. Doing that is sourced in lack or fear is like pouring water into a ditch; the soil just soaks it up until there’s nothing but a muddy mess.

But doing that is intentional — that’s more like pouring water into a potted plant, thoughtfully, lovingly, and paying attention to the moment when it begins to drain from the bottom. The plant does not need an endless amount of water all at once. it needs just the right amount, every few days or so. Love doesn’t mean constant, hyper-focused attention. That sounds smothering.

No, love means saying come in. You don’t get to have so much power here, so instead of yelling at me from the driveway and tossing rocks at my window, I am calling you up, pouring you a cup of tea, and giving you a bit of my undivided attention.

So what are you scared of, love? What are you sad about? Why the tears springing up? Tell me everything. Or just sip your tea. We don’t even have to talk.

If you only write when you’re happy and shiny, I’m not sure I’ll trust you. Write whenever you feel like writing. Don’t worry about who’s reading. Don’t worry about how it sounds or whether it’s any good.

Remember who you are. A person who writes to connect with yourself. A person who writes to make sense of emotions and moods and experiences and highs and lows. A person who would rather be real than popular.

And Jena? Remember what this space is for: Showing up. Practicing. And beginning again and again and again.

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.

“The giving season is over”

Flipping around the car radio,
these five words caught my ear.
I’d like to think there was more to it,
we’re not always privy to context.
Benefit of the doubt says
sometimes we’re moving too fast
to hear the rest, missing the crucial
thing that was said just after,
not seeing how it turned out,
that sad phrase, that tense moment,
that terse exchange you glimpsed
in passing.

But benefit of the doubt is tired.
It’s so tired. It’s tired and it’s pissed
that we’re living in a time and place
where context is too smart
for the powers that be, where
to listen deeply is laughable,
something only elitists do,
where our so-called president
calls Haiti and the entire African continent
“shithole countries,” suggesting we open
our doors to more Norwegians instead.
American, Aryan — splitting blonde hairs
of wholesome, pure specimens of superiority.

The giving season is over.
There is only taking now.
Taking land, taking language, taking health
care, taking names, taking neighborhoods,
taking schools, taking deep breaths
to keep ourselves sane while they take
and take take take, taking turns
with shallow apologies, taking families,
taking compassion, taking humanity,
taking intelligence, taking diplomacy,
taking kindness, taking depth, taking
whatever they want, like they always have,
and spitting in the faces
of anyone who doesn’t look like them
or come when they call.

Angry? Yes. I’m angry.
Am I frightened? Beneath everything, yes.
The giving season is over —
I heard it myself today on the radio.
My own dark curls and speckled eyes
don’t fit the profile, though I can hide
behind my rosy cheeks and pale skin.
Mind goes to trains, ships, all the methods
of death transport by the millions.
Bodies that don’t conform, minds that don’t
conform, families that don’t conform,
art that doesn’t conform, leaders
who come in so many forms confronting
daily a thousand small atrocities adding
up to something like genocide,
something like ethnic cleansing,
something like eugenics, something like
the most sinister tactics of decimation
history has seen.

Here we are again, in this place where
the giving season buckles under the weight
of so much taking.
I want to say: Rest, let me carry something
of yours here, let me take your weight
for a moment, don’t let them break you.
Instead, I wonder how long I can hold on
before the ugliness starts to ruin me.
I say I won’t let that happen.
And I wonder if it’s true.