Sunday, November 30, 2014

Life Simply Is... Compassion

Why do we resist acknowledging someone else’s struggle? Do we fear we are somehow being blamed? Do we fear that our own struggle is being invalidated?

For many of us, the protests around the country sparked by the acquittal of the police officer who shot the young man in Ferguson, brought this into sharp focus. With few exceptions, my friends and acquaintances lined up on predictable sides of the debate. Many instantly took rigid positions, from behind which they lobbed insults and criticisms at the other side.

The one side insisted that Michael Brown was a threat to Officer Darren Wilson, that his death was justified and not racially motivated. They also focused on and condemned the riots and looting, to the exclusion of the peaceful protests that far outnumbered the lawless activities. But underneath these positions, the spoken or unspoken sentiment was this: there is no racial bias in policing; the system is not unfair for black Americans.

The other side insisted that Michael Brown was yet another unarmed black boy killed for being black; and the acquittal just another example of a system that is rigged. Also voiced was the anguished cry from four centuries of blatant racism; poignant personal stories of lives and opportunities defined by skin color; and of a system that does not promise protection or justice to people of color.

Even if we debate Michael Brown’s innocence, whether Officer Wilson’s life was in danger, and whether deadly force was justified, I am baffled by those who deny the existence of a system that favors whites and discriminates against people of color. 

I suppose to ignore cultural racism we must ignore history, ignore facts, ignore statistics. But even more significant, I think, is when we ignore the personal stories; instead of imagining for a moment the pain of growing up with racism, we push it away and insist it simply is not true.

How is it that we’re able to so completely ignore another person’s reality?

I do understand that it is painful and uncomfortable to bear witness to another’s struggle. This in itself can be motive enough to push away another’s experience: Your suffering makes me so uncomfortable, I don’t want to think about it, I dont want to feel what you feel. In fact I can let myself off the hook entirely if I shift the focus: tell you to stop complaining and take responsibility for yourself, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, that sort of thing.

If we are hearing about a group’s subjugation, and we are part of the oppressing group, we can feel like we’re personally being blamed. I’ve read a lot of articles in the past few days written by black Americans; and a few times I’ve started feeling like crap for being white. I don’t like feeling like crap, particularly since I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong. So instead of sitting with my discomfort, I could get defensive and defiant, and start attacking the person who’s sharing. Feeling angry and outraged is easier to sit with than feelings of guilt and shame.

And in our competitive world, it may seem that to validate another’s pain invalidates or diminishes our own. I admit it: when I hear someone share how their daily lives are impacted by racism, there is a part of me that feels indignant: “well you should try being a woman in a patriarchal society!” And once I start thinking about my struggle, I’m no longer holding a space for their story, their struggle. But in truth, someone else’s struggle does not in any way invalidate my own.

There are so many to choose from, but this story from Vassar University English teacher Kiese Laymon is genuine and heartbreaking:

The bandage has been ripped off, exposing deep racial wounds in this country. If we don’t want to waste this opportunity, if we truly want to improve things here in America, there are two things we can and should start doing immediately:

One, we need to learn to sit with our own discomfort. This is actually a great practice for life in general. We are so afraid of discomfort, we rush to soothe and placate ourselves. The next time you feel sad, lonely, hurt, or blamed, just sit with it for a while. What I don’t mean is to start a blaming rant: “I’m just a lazy excuse of a human being; no wonder things always sour for me. I will always be lonely. I don’t deserve happiness. And if happiness comes my way, guaranteed I’ll screw it up. Because I am a screw-up.” No, no, this is all wrong. Sit with it. No dialog. NO DIALOG. Just experience the uncomfortable feelings for a few minutes.

With this as a starting place, perhaps we can start to sit with the uncomfortable feelings that arise when an oppressed person tells us about how our group oppresses them; or about how we specifically benefit from privilege. We aren’t surrendering; in fact this isn’t a battle at all. It feels uncomfortable knowing that while doors have opened for me because I’m white, those same doors have not opened for people simply because of the color of their skin. That makes me feel personally uncomfortable. But you know what? It isn’t going to kill me to feel a little discomfort.

Two, we need to extend compassion. The best way to extend compassion is to ask, to listen, and to really hear and absorb what the other person is sharing. When someone shares their personal experiences, their reality, what could be more intimate and vulnerable? And if we invalidate, minimize, or jump in with our own experiences, we’ve just given them a sucker punch – just when they were opening up their tender parts to us. Each of us experiences life in a unique way, and for anyone to invalidate that is not only disrespectful, it is wrong. Compassion: let each other know we hear and honor their story.

America has a violent history. And life in America today is still unsafe, unfair, and unwelcoming to many people simply because of the group they belong to. I see no hope for national healing without first accepting this reality. And we need to go beyond accepting discrimination anecdotally: we must listen to stories, really try to understand others’ experiences, be willing to be uncomfortable, and just listen.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Life Simply Is... Speaking Up

When I was in my 20’s I was an activist. I put myself out on the front lines in the work I chose, the demonstrations I attended, and the conversations I had. It was both invigorating and exhausting. I opened myself up to a lot of proselytizing and venom; I frequently became the unwitting target of others’ personal rage.

It was an experience and a time period that profoundly shaped me, and unexpectedly also helped me to see the other side of the debate. While it only helped to strengthen my convictions, I also gained understanding and at times even compassion for those with opposing views.

It was when I embarked on my rangering journey that I made the deliberate decision to not be an activist. I was not only relocating, I was transitioning into transience: I had no idea how long I would be mobile, or where I would end up. I would be repeatedly navigating new neighborhoods, making new friends, and changing careers – into one that was both law enforcement and underrepresented by women. I’d have enough challenge with all of that; no need to take on social causes as well.

Fast forward to living with post-traumatic stress. Confrontations with people have been my singular biggest hardship. Even debates with friends are enormously anxiety-provoking. I have left jobs rather than face difficult working relationships. In recent years I have made few new friends, and lost some old friends, finding myself unable to navigate misunderstandings or differing priorities.

Keeping a low profile has been my goal these past years. Do my job, be polite, don’t get too involved, and try to keep the target off my back. (Oddly, this approach isn’t nearly as effective as it should be.)

But lately I’ve been struck by the changes I’m seeing in the world around me, caught up in them and stirred out of my relative hibernation. Change is happening, and I feel compelled to be a part of that. I cannot remain silent.

It seems to me that as the radical right becomes more extreme, divisive and hateful, the rest of us are more bravely voicing our own truths. Same-sex couples are gaining the right to marry across the nation amidst a groundswell of support. Young women and men are speaking out against street harassment and our rape culture. Believers of true religious freedom are standing up to Christian presumption. Advocates for racial equity are calling out racism for what it is, when bigots hide behind distractions such as “looting hoodlums” or “illegals;” students are demanding an accurate accounting of America’s “discovery.” Walmart employees are striking for a living wage. A new feminism is sprouting up within the younger generation, one that is stunning in its holistic beauty and power. Being a good citizen of this planet doesn’t look just one way.

The divide grows wider as the feasibility of communicating across that divide seems to dwindle.

Rhiannon, Zariya, and Belissa's powerful poem, "Somewhere In America."  

I came home last night from a lovely home-cooked meal with my son, daughter-in-law, and some of their friends, to news about the verdict in Ferguson and the eruptions of outrage and disbelief across the country. As I perused Facebook it struck me: when I already know which of my friends and acquaintances are bigots, why do I waste any time or effort trying to sway them? Nothing will be gained. A wise friend once told me that if a person draws a line in the sand, I can be certain that any further efforts on my part will only be for my benefit.

All of my frustration and indignation – at people who refuse to believe that blacks, gays, Mexican immigrants, or women deserve respect and equal civil rights – needs to be rechanneled. Forget those vocal few who spew hatred and intolerance. They will have no power if the rest of us come together, build each other up, and work together. Our diversity is our strength, and we need to ensure that our country is not controlled by those who insist there is only one “right” way to live.

There are many fronts on this battlefield: gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, age, weight, physical ability, mental ability. I so strongly believe that we are fighting the same battle: we are fighting for human dignity, for civil rights, for all people. The hate-propagators are the ones trying to pit us against each other. I’m so sick of the suggestion that we should support military veterans over (illegal) immigrants. That competition is fabricated; its only purpose is to keep us busy fighting each other for resources, and to cast other struggling humans as “others.” Terms such as “illegals” are degrading and dehumanizing. In today’s headlines, we are distracted from accepting and confronting our very real racism:
“Notice how the mainstream news outlets are using words like riot and looting to describe the uprising in Ferguson. What’s happening is not a riot. The people are protesting and engaging in a justified rebellion. They have a righteous anger and are revolting against the police who have terrorized them for years.”

In some ways the two meanings behind the name of this blog are in conflict. “Simply” implies a life of small pleasures and few complications, which might preclude activism or political involvement; whereas “Life Is” implies radical acceptance; looking our blessings and our hardships head-on and taking stock without color coating.

Where these two merge, for me, is intention. I want to be deliberate with how I spend my time, and what complications I take on. I will consider myself imminently fortunate if I never again am enmeshed in office politics. However standing up for truth and justice and risking backlash, while potentially painful for me, is a valuable way to spend my time. It feels imperative that I speak up at a time in our history that seems so raw and perilous.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Life Simply Is... Counting on Others

We all have those deep beliefs, about ourselves or about life, which we hold onto regardless of evidence to the contrary.

One of mine, perhaps the most persistent, is that I can’t count on others. It is no accident that I have worked so hard at being self-sufficient, nor an accident that I have spent so much of my life single. It is true that I have been let down in extraordinary ways, at times by those I should have been able to count on; and it is true that I have had to do many things alone even at times when I desperately needed help. But it is also true that I have been helped countless times in my life, in ways both remarkable and humble.

By default I assume I am carrying my burden alone, so sometimes I have to remind myself when I am not.

My recent move provided such an example. Granted, I spent many long, solitary days sorting, packing, selling on craigslist, dropping things off at the thrift store, cleaning, and transporting items from my apartment to my trailer. But without a doubt this move was a team effort.

My son and daughter-in-law worked hard to find a good location for me to live in my trailer. Moving somewhere sight unseen is nerve-wracking, but I knew their judgment would be sound.

Every time I brought items to the trailer (at the time parked in my parents’ backyard), they would prepare lunch or dinner to share with me. Some days my mom would walk out to the trailer and help me with self-improvement projects: sewing curtains and pillow covers, hanging pictures. My dad helped with several projects, often unasked: straightening a bent ceiling fan blade, placing pavers on the ground leading up to my door, and helping me extricate a very obstinate VCR player without breaking anything.

A few weeks before the move, my son drove up from California in his pickup truck. He and my sister-in-law Lauren spent a day transporting my larger and heavier belongings to the trailer.

My big sister Katrina spent two days helping me build the panels for my pet yard, and her help went far beyond practical. This task took on enormous proportions in my brain, symbolizing all the angst and exhaustion of having to do everything alone. While there was nothing about doing it that was beyond my skills and experience, I dragged my feet getting started. Having her come over and help meant that it got done.

As the days and weeks of preparation wore on, and the burden of navigating the move and all that encompassed started to take a toll, what felt most wearying was that I have had to carry my life burdens alone for so long; the cumulative effect of years of taking care of myself. And then I would stop myself and reassess. Truthfully I was getting help from every direction. 

I have spent many years learning to take care of myself, and it does feel great to not depend on others to make changes in my life, nor to conduct my day-to-day affairs. This has been the simpler choice for me, because I avoid both the disappointment and logistical bind that can come from being let down. But it comes at a cost: I have missed the experience of sharing a life with someone; of learning to work through my disappointment; of learning understanding and forgiveness.

And theoretically, a well-balanced relationship is a more efficient, simple unit than a single person. Working in harmony, two can accomplish more together than they could separately.

But…. No need to get ahead of myself. My first step is to learn to be more vulnerable, to trust more, and to rely on close friends and family. I need to accept that when we rely on one another, there is the possibility of being let down: we are only human after all. Living in community with others, entwining my needs with theirs, is messier, more complicated; and with the joys it also brings more potential for sorrow. But it is the more human choice. 

As I embark on this new journey, it is my greatest goal to learn to open my heart to those who have earned my trust, to learn to live more as a human with humans. I do not doubt that this is the most important journey in Life, this journey of the heart.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Life Simply Is... Beginnings

Who knew that learning to live in a travel trailer would be anything but simple?

I had thought I had all the hoses and connectors I needed to hook up to sewer, but my trailer has an atypical design: in addition to gray and black water coming out under the bathroom, there is an entirely separate output under the kitchen. A neighbor, after seeing this, threw his hands up in the air and said I may as well get the missing parts before hooking anything up.

So for the first few days I lived with apprehension that my tanks would fill up, and I would be unable to use my toilet or sinks. Then another neighbor came over and saw no reason that I couldn’t connect what I had so that at least my bathroom waste water could be disposed of. That was a relief! I would just need to avoid washing dishes in the kitchen until I bought the missing parts.

Then came the next surprise: apparently you can’t just hook up the black water (what comes from the toilet; you can figure it out) to drain and be done with it. If you do, you run the risk of things building up and sticking to the walls of the holding tank. My neighbor gave me a very lengthy and graphic description of the correct procedure, which in short involves allowing the black water tank to fill up, draining it, then filling with water and draining again. And no this isn’t done inside; this is getting up close and personal with the nasty stuff.

If RVers have to go through this every few days, why don’t we all just have composting toilets?  That’ll be my first task once I’m able to move onto my own property.

To my dismay I found that my cell phone got absolutely no service in my new home. Worse, I’d just upgraded my phone to one with a decent camera. I was shocked and distressed to find that my provider would only offer a refund if I could return the phone to where I purchased it, an 18-hour drive round trip. After pushing them, they softened their demand to returning it to any of their stores, the closest one only 6 hours round trip. And of course they would retain half its cost for “restocking.”

This is a modern-day (and admittedly first world) conundrum. I have countless stories, as do you, of big companies lacking all reason, being completely rigid, and providing customer service that can be summed up as “fuck you.” The supervisor I spoke with actually praised himself for at least not lying to me. This was not my first time wistfully imagining living off the grid, returning that “fuck you” to the big companies and not entering into relationships with them: telephones, credit cards, banks, utility companies, all those businesses who at one time or another can hold us hostage because of our desire to live with modern conveniences. I’m not prepared to make that leap, to live without a telephone or credit cards. But I wonder if there will come a day when small businesses can offer an alternative to these traditionally big-business services. They certainly would get my business.

My neighbors have been extraordinarily friendly and helpful, and I am fortunate to live near other trailer-dwellers willing to show me the ropes. While I expect at some point to move myself onto some land, this is the prudent, if less private, choice.

My son helped me assemble the pet yard, which is simply the “catio” until I put together a ramp system for my dog. Gladys loves her yard, spending long stretches of the day perched on her cat tower observing the world, or wriggling in a patch of sunshine. Mags is happy too, since the lack of pet yard access means she gets at least two walks a day. Her beach romps have been my first experience letting her off-leash, and she blisses out.

Downsizing isn’t for the faint of heart. Even for a single person, moving from a 2 bedroom, 2 bath apartment into a 230 square foot trailer is like working a Rubik’s cube. My cupboards and closets have been filled with boxes protecting my belongings during the move, which of course I need to unpack and put away. But there is no place to put them away, since all the cupboards are full. So on non-rainy days I take some boxes outside to clear space, unpack other boxes, put things away as I’m able, take out any trash and recyclables, then bring back inside the boxes that are still full.

Three weeks after moving here, I have to accept that I still have too much stuff. My walls are decorated with art, but there are simply no horizontal spaces available to display items. I have a few boxes, after my rigorous thinning out, of knickknacks and books that simply have no place to be displayed. The kitchen cupboards are completely filled with food and the tools of food preparation; the bedroom filled with clothing, linens and toiletries. Where then to put files and office supplies? Electronics? Gear for hiking, camping, kayaking and biking?  Tools?

So my home is still a disaster, and I’m at a stand-still: caught between yearning for an open, uncluttered living space; and unwilling to be frantic or impulsive or spend money I don’t have for storage.

Trailer living is mini living. And I’m a small person; the transition must be extraordinary for a large person. I was taking a shower about a week after moving here, when suddenly my shampoo caddy came clattering down, striking and bruising my leg before loudly scattering items on the shower floor. I sighed a long-suffering sigh and replaced the caddy over the shower head. As I bent down to pick up the shampoo and soaps, the caddy once again came down, this time bashing into my head. I breathed deeply to keep myself from yelling out in frustration, oh so gently placed the caddy in a corner on the shower floor, and as I stood up smashed my head on the shower door handle. I turned my grimacing face into the spray of water, which by this time had turned cold.

After my first week, when I went to make some tea my stove would not light. Disbelieving, I went outside and saw that one of my two propane tanks was empty. It was easy to switch over to the second tank, but I was unhappy to discover I’d spent $20 on propane after one week. That would be $80 per month, not including electricity. I will have to experiment with those appliances that can switch between propane and electricity, and maybe even start bundling up a bit inside. The trailer doesn’t keep out that coastal chill very well, which makes sense.

But I have driven, walked, and ridden my bicycle down to the beach and started to explore the glorious surroundings of my new home. Despite it being November, we have been treated to an abundance of sunshiny days. One afternoon I took my dog to walk the Trinidad Head trail. Despite it having been overcast all day, when we returned to the beach I was treated to a spectacular sunset. And at night I can step outside my trailer and look up into the black sky and see the stars, so clear and brilliant away from city lights.

Learning to live in a trailer? Far more involved than I realized. The beauty of radical acceptance? Allowing it to be more complicated, adjusting my expectations, and accepting that all of this is going to take time. We will get to simple.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Life Simply Is... Change

The final days before the move were hectic and exhausting. I would get up before the sun and work until I couldn’t anymore. I moved my dog and cat into the trailer for the last two nights, which was parked in my parents’ backyard, so that I could focus on cleaning the apartment without worrying about them. The apartment seemed determined to keep revealing new things needing to be cleaned. After my final 12-hour day, car packed full, items loaded on top and tied so tight they couldn’t breathe, I drove to my trailer for my last night.

The morning of the move started at 5 a.m. I gave my pets a vet-prescribed sedative and put them in my car. I cleared things out of the way so that my bedroom and living room slide-outs could slide in for the drive. Then I started loading in all the final items, taking up every bit of floor space with my kayak, bicycle, cat towers, the panels for the pet yard and assorted lumber. Finally I unhooked the electricity and water and turned off the propane tanks.

My mom had brewed some strong coffee, and prepared a day’s worth of snacks and sandwiches for the nine-hour drive. My dad helped load in some of the bigger items, and with the final trailer preparations.

Promptly at 8 a.m. my hired driver arrived. Seeing the open gate to my parents’ backyard, he backed in his pickup with extra-wide bed with mere inches to spare, and had my 5th wheel trailer hooked up on the first try. I was impressed, and felt myself relax knowing that my home was in good hands.

The unfortunate thing about being so busy, and so focused leading up to the move, was that I was unable to really focus on the important farewells happening: my parents, sister, brother-in-law, niece, nephew and extended family. It felt surreal my final night saying goodbye to my sister and nephew; it felt more so saying goodbye to my parents. For the past decade I had been at most a few hours’ drive away, and I felt a pang of regret.

My big worry was that after several days of pushing myself so hard, the hours of monotonous driving and vibrations of the road would lull me into a stupor. My cat Gladys however had her own plans. Despite being given the larger dose of sedative, she spent the first three hours telling me loudly and non-stop how upset she was with me. Even during brief moments of quiet, I would look back and see her head up, eyes wide open. She never fully succumbed to the sedative, but after the first few hours settled down somewhat.

My dog Mags was far more relaxed lying on my lap, so much so that at one point I felt the sudden warmth on my right thigh of her peeing on me.

It was a perfect day for driving: occasional light rain but no downpours, overcast to prevent animals cooking in the sun. After crossing from Oregon into California, narrow highway 199 wound through the majestic redwoods which seemed to welcome me. I felt the air sink deep into my lungs, then release in slow sighs of appreciation.

After turning onto highway 101, along one stretch I saw what I believed were horses. I was puzzled, because two of them were on the wrong side of the fence. As I got closer I realized they were elk. Several dozen were grazing in a meadow. I drove on, and not five minutes later came upon another herd: perhaps part of the same herd, since elk herds usually have large territories.

I tried to let it sink in that I was returning to a part of the world where wildlife and humans were in closer proximity. It had been three long years of city living. I was grateful for the elk herd’s regal and awe-inspiring reminder that my wait was over.

I drove by several lagoons, places where dykes cut a line across the ocean to create small and calm bodies of water. I wondered when and why they were created. They looked ideal for kayaking.

Just miles from my new home, I saw the ocean. This stretch of the Pacific has its own look, dotted with misshapen sea stacks creating a broken horizon and a chaos of waves. I rolled down the windows and breathed in the salty air. I was home.