Waking Up Is a Prerequisite to Reckoning


What we need right now aren’t fantasies for the future. Calls for unity, healing, and kindness are beautiful, and they may make us feel better for a spell. But my fear is that they are also the stuff of national anesthetization and temporary amnesia that allow too many of us to go about our lives between marches or shootings, numbing out just enough to shrug at the status quo.

We’re tired, we say. There’s only so much we can do, we say. We feel hopeless, we say. There are about a bazillion ways to opt out of reality, and fantasizing tops the list.  I’d like to think we’re beyond this as a nation, but I know that that, too, is a fantasy.

As a younger woman, I used to have fantasies. Lots of them. Not psychic flashes of the future or winning-the-lottery type wishes, but more like a constant, distant mirage of where life was going and wouldn’t it be great when we finally got there?

In these fantasies, my then-husband had a job he loved, preferably one that allowed him to be outdoors a lot. In these fantasies, I had a thriving coaching practice that included Jennifer Aniston as a client, and we lived in a house with stainless steel appliances and a big mudroom. In these fantasies, money was never a source of stress. In these fantasies, I’d “get to” have a sexual experience with a woman, but just one, just enough to check it off my bucket list, nothing that would threaten the life we’d built. In these fantasies, I would reach a lot of people with my words and be known as a writer. In these fantasies, gay marriage was legal in all 50 states (why I cared so much, I wasn’t sure). There was peace in the Middle East. Racism was a thing of the past.

There was more, I’m sure, but those are the parts that come to mind right off the top of my head.

Later, after life undid the house of cards I’d so lovingly constructed, I sat in the rubble for a while. In my grief and emergence, fantasies seemed like folly or worse, a form of betrayal. On the one hand, I didn’t know how to trust myself. On the other hand, trusting myself had turned out to be the only solid ground.

Solid ground is where life is real and undeniable and perhaps scary and confusing to confront. It’s where things aren’t working and we’re willing to examine our role in that. It’s where we’re not telling the whole truth — usually out of fear, and usually out of fear that we will lose something. Solid ground is what we willingly trade for fault lines when we gloss over reality in the name of being good and/or trying to “make things work.”

Imagining a fantasy America that has healed (not heeled) from “its painful past,” sound nice — and should give us serious pause. The past isn’t the past when it’s the very ground we’re walking on. The past isn’t the past when it’s present in our everyday lives, in ways many white Americans continue to diminish, downplay, and downright deny.

If only we raise the vibration. If only we come together to sing in perfect harmony. We are the world, we are the children. My 80s are showing; these are the tropes of my growing-up years, and they’re not only tired, they’re dangerous. Why? Because skin color does matter. In a country built on racial hierarchies, it has everything to do with how we are perceived and treated, what obstacles or opportunities our children encounter, and how safe our bodies and psyches are in the world.

To pretend otherwise is its own kind of violence — and too many of us are perpetuating it. Sure, we may be perpetuating it inadvertently — but that is exactly my point. We need not to fantasize, but to be awake. We were taught not to generalize, not to lump whole groups of people together. But what I don’t remember reading or discussing in grade school or in middle school or in high school was the fact that as a person of color, the deck is stacked against you from birth. Period.

I was taught to remember how hard people — black and white alike — had fought for civil rights. In the past. We watched South Africa fight against Apartheid — and it was “over there,” surely something much worse than the racism that still existed in America. We were taught to envision a future where race wouldn’t matter. The privilege deeply embedded in all of this makes me wince.

Waking up might hurt, but it’s nothing next to the millions of ways white supremacy hurts real people every single day. And we most certainly cannot envision tomorrow without first taking responsibility for where we are today.

This fantasy of an America that has healed from its past will never exist if a majority of Americans won’t acknowledge the fundamental premise on which our country’s economy, popular culture, and capitalist ethos depend: That the lives of people of color are worth less than those of people with white skin — or worthless, period.

Fantasy is white people sharing rainbows and hearts and good vibes and calling it “healing.” It’s also the epitome of privilege, to paint pretty pictures of what’s possible but refusing to acknowledging the rot that is destroying us from the inside out — and our role in keeping it that way.

No, we have to do better. How? By dealing with what actually is. Without that, talk of a better America simply feeds this insatiable desire to look away. To not be accountable. To point the finger at “real” racists. To distance ourselves from racism. To insist that “we’re not like that.”

Reality — the only soil in which a true vision can grow roots — is where we wake up and say, “Yes, me too. I am part of this. I have to start looking at and confronting and shattering the ways in which I am complicit in perpetuating an inherently racist culture.”

It occurred to me, somewhat out of the blue the other day, that I don’t have a lot of fantasies for my life these days. Sure, I picture my kids getting older and think about their futures, and I imagine the seasons turning and the years passing. But I don’t really spend my time thinking about what I’ll be doing or how things will be different — or better — for us. On the heels of this realization came a quiet knowing: I am actually here, in my life, accepting all of it. The parts that are really fulfilling right now along with the things that are uncomfortable, uncertain, or scary.

When a patient is bleeding out, you don’t stand around talking about how great it will be when they’re all better.

I don’t use the word “woke” to refer to myself. But what I have written a lot about over the years is being awake. While this may seem like splitting hairs, to me there is a distinction. “Woke” isn’t  my word to use, to claim. To do so is appropriation — just one more example of me, a white woman, taking something that isn’t mine and making it about me.

But being awake? That is a prerequisite to reckoning. And reckon we must, every single one of us.

What beliefs have I internalized about race over the course of my 43 years here on the planet? What myths have I perpetuated that need to be smashed in order for us to have a clean slate as a country? Is a clean slate for our country possible? Not until we deal with what is right here, all around us, and right here, inside of each of us. 

All the Places of Waking

photo-1422433555807-2559a27433bd

Yesterday afternoon, I woke up from a nap
looked out the skylight and saw blue
with wisps of white

Yesterday afternoon, I woke up from a nap
looked out the skylight and saw blue
with wisps of white
then out the two south-facing windows
to the far tree by mean neighbor Jim’s house
with its green leaves coming into fullness

Yesterday afternoon, I woke up from a nap
looked out the skylight and saw blue
with wisps of white
then out the two south-facing windows
to the far tree by mean neighbor Jim’s house
with its green leaves coming into fullness
then out the three east-facing bay windows
to the far tree in the yard where students
party and play volleyball and drink
from red solo cups in the summer

This is the room
I thought
where I’m waking up from an afternoon nap
This is home
home now
home for now

Then my thoughts drifted back and back
to the other rooms and homes where I woke up
from naps over the years
and though I often think I have a terrible memory
when I thought of the rooms where I woke up
I could picture so many of them
and how each one was home

Do I tell you the addresses
or what blankets were on the beds
or which direction the windows faced
or what color paint was on the walls
whether there were shades or drapes or blinds
dark or direct line of sun
rotten window frame
or new windows
rent or own
stay or go
what of these would you like to know
and which should I say was home?

My mind jumps around from each to each
rather than traveling methodically back
and back
no wonder I am anxious
and so as I woke yesterday afternoon I stayed in bed
a while looking at those two faraway trees
not the closer-up branches nearer to the house
this yellow house this house with two apartments
ours on the second floor
and an attic
filled with other people’s old boxes broken down
and lamps that may or may not work
as I woke I traveled a little bit in line
through time
glad for the quiet
glad for the slow

5 Eames Pl
559 Pulpit Hill Rd
38 Bilodeau Ct
Clymer St don’t remember the number
38 Bilodeau Ct
256 S. Winooski Ave
Summer St don’t remember the number
S. 4th Ave.
Davis St don’t remember the number
Lessey St on and off
Mexico there were two rooms
W. 78th St.
A Russian orphanage
W. 116th St.
Claremont Ave.
Blocked out Claremont dorm address completely
and 57 Harkness Rd
378 Crescent St
130 Crescent St first memory that quilt hanging on the wall by the stairs

Can that be right
Were these the homes
no no
none of these were home
I kept moving
and I’m still here
but yes, these were
all the places of waking

**

The month-long poetry party that April participants have called “nourishing,” “enriching,” “life-changing,” “sacred,” “beautiful,” “best four consecutive weeks ever,” and “most amazing writing experience that I have ever been a part of” is happening again in July! Just $28 and all are welcome: bit.ly/1qg583L