Work for the Long Haul


In a recent interview in the magazine gal-dem, Roxane Gay’s comments about cancel culture, a phrase I just learned from my daughter last night, are critical to a national conversation we desperately need to be having with ourselves and each other.

This conversation is not easy or simple or quick. It requires nuance, patience, and commitment — all skills eroded by a cultural moment that lends itself to reactivity and the hot topic du jour.

Related to this, in my mind, is something Leesa Renee Hall​ wrote recently about why “becoming an anti-racist is a lousy new year’s resolution.” Read that here, and join Leesa’s Patreon community for writing prompts and deep work around uncovering and addressing your unconscious bias.

This is all work for the long haul.

For the past month or so, probably since around the time Freedom School with Desiree Lynn Adaway​* ended in December, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own part in this movement. Truth be told, my thoughts have drifted to wondering whether anything I’ve done has made any difference. And each time I start indulging this self-referential reverie, I have the same wake-up call moment: IT IS NOT ABOUT ME.

Every single time I have thoughts like, “what am I really doing, anyway? Is anything I’m doing making a difference?” is an opportunity to peel away another onion-skin layer of internalized white supremacy.

This in of an itself is a significant aspect of addressing the ways in which whiteness is in me, whether I want it to be or not.

Centering myself, questioning the work if I can’t see the immediate “results,” as if anti-racism and social justice work is akin to going to the gym and expecting to see greater muscle definition after a few workouts.

For many well-intentioned white feminists, letting go of the need for evidence that we are “making a difference” is a humbling and crucial step on the long, decidedly not sexy road of becoming better allies.

We have to be more devoted to continuing to show up, listen, learn, and put our own agendas aside than we are in getting credit for our efforts, feeling good about our “impact” on the very individuals and communities we claim to be invested in yet unconsciously place ourselves above and apart from. This is what I mean by nuance.

We have to keep expecting more of ourselves. This means questioning our questions, and, more importantly, stepping out of the “I” mentality that keeps our focus inward rather than on the real stakes: People’s lives and systems designed to denigrate and destroy individual dignity and entire communities.

This is work for the long haul.

* There is still time to sign up for 2019 Freedom School, which begins at the end of January.

Grappling with Radical Honesty in Reactive Times

Image: The Daily Don

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

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

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

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

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

I simply wonder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ve been moving in this direction all along.

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

How is this possible?

How could this happen?

How did Trump get elected?

How can “they” get away with this?

How did it get this bad?

These are not useful questions. They are ignorant questions.

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

And I am also not ignorant in others.

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

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

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

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

I want to say, Yeah! Hear, hear!

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

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

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

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

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

Right.

None of us likes that.

These are incredibly reactive times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t look away.

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

Alternatives to Crying, Collapsing, and Crumbling in a Heap of White Fragility

Photo: Asdrubal luna

Don’t cry. Don’t collapse in a puddle of guilt and shame. Don’t crumble and say, “How can this still be happening?” Don’t say “I’m so sorry.” Don’t wring your hands. Don’t share videos that make our hands go to our mouths in horror before we get on with our day. Don’t say “I wish I could do something.”

Instead.

Go deeper and wider. Peel back your own layers of privilege. Confront your own truths. Look closely at the messages you’ve receieved all your life. Write things down and reserve judgment. Do it for the learning.

Actively seek out learning from people outside of your immediate circles. We tend to surround ourselves with sameness, and it’s a huge loss. Read, listen, watch, discuss, engage — without defending, deflecting, or denying. These last three come up in a zillion subtle and unconscious ways. Be vigilant. Pay attention to your own conditioning. This takes time.

The vast majority of us did not learn more than a sliver of real history in our history classes in school. History is all around us. It’s not a thing of the past. And you can’t weed a garden without getting to the roots.

I’m not interested in being right and telling anyone what to do or not do (even though I just did). I’m interested in collective responsibility, and how change happens, and how to take an overwhelming — false — sense of helplessness and turn it into power.

Hawking, Einstein, “It” and Us

Photo: Greg Rakozy

This morning, we looked at posts about Stephen Hawking on Instagram — photos, quotes. Though I will likely never grasp his teachings from a scientific standpoint, I will take to heart his teaching that this is it: We have no time to waste, and really no excuse for not trying.

My father, who was born just one year after Hawking, gave me “A Brief History of Time” when I was in high school. A couple of years ago when Aviva was maybe 13, she and I watched “The Theory of Everything” together. Given that none of us are scientists, you would think Hawking would be of less interest in a family of writers and musicians. But no, he captured her imagination just as he captured mine. And I know why: He modeled the impossible. He proved that our minds are capable of unfathomable intelligence, and that we could use this intelligence to further our understanding of existence, time, and space. He showed us that curiosity and perseverance could transccend physical limitations.

As a teenager, I had a big poster of Einstein on my bedrom wall. His white hair all akimbo in every which direction, his gaze would follow me around the room along with the words that imprinted themselves on my young brain:

“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”

Today, Stephen Hawking died. And it’s Einstein’s birthday. I’m picturing them eating cake together, hoping we can collectively get our shit together down here.

Today, I will go to an elementary school for a walk-out to commemmorate the lives of children lost to gun violence in school shootings and protest gun violence.. Today, I will meet with Luping and speak English and look at photos of her one-year-old niece back in China. Today, I will help my son complete a first draft of an essay about gemilut hasadim — acts of loving kindness.

And I will wonder if it’s enough.

What more can I be doing? I will want to reach more people. I will want to make a bigger difference in this world strangled by greed and hatred. Yesterday. we went to see A Wrinkle in Time {spoiler alert}, and there is an image of the darkness literally wrapping around the earth. It will stop at nothing, and once it enters people, it becomes nearly impossible to root out. While I realize this is fiction, wow did it ever speak to me. I wanted to stand up in the theater to proclaim, “I’m here to fight the It!”

Alas, the “It” is not something out there in Hawking’s universe. The “It” is here. It’s here when our national priorities are so distorted and hijacked by narrow-minded thinking and a disdain for intelligent thought; it’s here in white supremacist narratives that encourage the dehumanization of people of color, immigrants, and non-heterosexual, non-cisgender, non-Christian people; it’s here in the lies we are literally sold on fake silver platters; it’s here in politicians who would sooner sell their souls that be accountable; it’s here in sex-trafficking of women and children, in the ripping apart of families through deportation and mass incarceration; it’s here in the opioid epidemic and big pharma; it’s here in white nationalism, front porch bombs, acquitted murderers on police forces, and blaming mental illness for shootings without putting more resources towards treating those with mental illness. This paragraph could go on for eons, bringing the space-time continuum to its knees in despair.

This is where we come in. It has to be.

So yes, lately, I find myself wondering if I’m doing enough. I survey my days: Writing groups, coaching, retreats, parenting, marriage, puppy preparation, Freedom School, what’s for dinner, another snowday, water the plants, blog posts, waiting for spring. It’s a lot, yes. And — I don’t want to be merely busy. I want it to matter.

The thing I have come to really see and accept — but need to touch every now and then to remind myself — is that nothing will ever be enough, and yes, it’s enough. Right?

The paradox is where we live, work, love, write, wrestle, learn, heal, and change.

The pain is too big, the needs too immense, to look at all at once. Like the sun, it could be blinding. But there are workarounds. Look to one side or the other, your gaze trained on one point. Every action, every word, every choice we make about how we spend our time here on this little planet matters. It has to.

When I need a good talking to, I often do it in the second person. It’s a way of tapping into my own knowing and communicating with my questioning self. And so comes this reminder:

Your voice. Not someone else’s. Not someone more qualified. Not someone with more experience. Not someone more articulate. Not someone more well-known. Not someone with a bigger platform or audience. Not someone smarter or more educated. Not someone who knows what they’re doing. Not someone with a prettier website or blog. Not someone who can say it better. Not someone else. Yours. You. Today is a good day to start, and an even better day to keep going.

If you’d like, you can also imagine that I’m talking to you. Because I am. You and I? We are the not the same, but we are also very much the same. And it’s to this paradox that I’ll dedicate this brand new day of writing and life, with a prayer that it can be enough.

Yes, there is violent opposition. Yes, there is darkness, so much darkness. Yes, there is fear and despair and urgency. Yes, it is tempting to shrink away, to give up, to succumb to hopelessness. But then I think of Stephen Hawking and I think of Albert Einstein, I think of Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time, I think of women like Tanzie Youngblood, a retired teacher and first-time black female candidate running for Congress — who is being thrown under the bus by fellow Democrats, I think of the everyday revolutions in classrooms and places of worships and shelters and in public parks and the steps of Capitol Hill and in living rooms all over the country that we don’t read or hear about, I think of dissidents and labor camps and genocide and how many Americans live in abject poverty while we you can buy your way into positions of so-called leadership — I could go on and on.

I think of all of this. My head explodes, a hot star. I glance at the time and see that I need to go shower before walking up to my son’s school. I will not go gently. I will not give up.

Thoughts on Writing and Fragility


All day, I’ve been pondering this: Becoming a stronger writer implicitly means becoming a less fragile person.

This notion has everything to do with my own journey, in that I’ve begun to see a correlation between writing and a more rooted sense of self, centeredness, and confidence that’s not contingent on outside approval or praise.

Now, to be clear: Developing some muscle, so as to be able to meet the world, needn’t come at the expense of being sensitive or tuned-in. If anything, I think they complement each other. But fragility — that to me has to be with being easily shattered, be it by feedback or negativity.

Practice is practice. The more I write, the more I write. And the more I risk sharing, the more I’m able to see that I am in fact risking very little. We’re conditioned with a lot of fear — what people will think of us, how we sound or look, whether we’re good enough or ready to share our writing. And the fear, in most cases, is unfounded in reality. If there is truly something at stake, it’s failure — and that can of worms is fodder for a whole different conversation.

My pondering here also has to do with social justice and the intersections of creativity with activism — the more you write and share and engage, the more you can become a participant in an urgent, ongoing conversation, as opposed to tip-toeing around and/or having an inflated sense of importance — neither of which is productive.

In my work, I want folks to get to practice writing, writing, writing — learning that they won’t die if the writing sucks, learning that inner critics are liars, and learning that ego has a lot to do with what keeps us small, stuck, and silent. Fragility dies on the vine, slowly but surely, when something deeper and more true begins to thrive.

The more you practice writing, the more confident you become in your own voice and the less defensive and threatened you need to be when confronting others’ perspectives and experiences.

The more you explore your own story, its shape, its contradictions, its nuance, its beauty, and its pain — the greater your capacity to recognize fear and limited thinking and the clearer your courage in speaking out.

The more you show up, risking being seen and heard, however imperfectly, the more you learn how to sidestep ego and the desire to look good or be right, in the name of something greater: Truth and beauty, connection and community, justice and equality.

None of this happens overnight, nor is it a process that’s ever finished. Poems, essays, books may be written. But the learning, the practice — it’s there that we return, over and over, to begin again, to go deeper, to strip the layers we hide behind that we didn’t even realize were still masking and muzzling us.

It’s work, and it’s play. It’s where work and play meet. It’s intentional and intuitive. There’s no prescription and there’s no magic eight-ball. There’s just one requirement: You have to show up. Roll up your sleeves and get out your pen. The world needs your strength.

And one more thing about strength: Like courage, it may not feel strong or brave at all. It probably feels questionable at best and stupid at worst. It’s likely to be vulnerable and sometimes uncomfortable and sometimes thrilling.

Yet you, on an ordinary day, telling the truth about your life and being willing to get more and more honest and real? That is strong, my friends. And it’s just the beginning.

Let fragility be nothing more than the shell that breaks open, revealing the pearl. And no matter what — keep writing.