Saturday, December 26, 2015

Listening to Others

NOTE: my apologies for any errors in my discussion of garments worn by Muslim women. I welcome any corrections.

As the end of the year approaches, it is natural to reflect on the past year. One significant change for me has been expanding my very limited view of the human experience by listening to stories from people who are not like me, whose cultures and experiences are ones that I will never have and therefore will never fully understand. By listening, I discover that to really appreciate what it is to be human I must try to understand what being human is for others.

I am a white woman who was raised in the United States. I have an adult son who is also white. Growing up, my family fluctuated between lower and middle class; my dad’s involvement in academia opened doors for us. I am cis-gender (as opposed to trans-gender), meaning that I have identified as female since birth and still do. I identify as a lesbian or queer, depending on the given day: however being both single and “passing,” I get to choose when and if I share my sexual orientation with others, a luxury not available to many in the LGBTQ+ community. My family moved around growing up, but overall I was raised with the typical American Exceptionalist propaganda that whitewashes U.S. and world history. I have been poor, but have always had family who could take me in if necessary. I have a college degree, and people with credentials to give me a recommendation.

I see and interpret everything through the lens of my experiences. My family was liberal, and I was raised with a typical white liberal feminist value system. I am grateful for this, and it certainly created a foundation for my more recent entry into social justice, but liberalism and feminism driven by white United Statesians has traditionally and consistently been less than inclusive, and has been just as guilty of a limited view of the human experience as have I.

So I’m learning. I share what I have learned, and I encourage others to join me in my ongoing effort to listen to other voices, those we haven’t been listening to.

In college my archeology professor was discussing women in Middle Eastern countries who wear concealing garments such as the Burka, and why she objected to them. She described the Burka as hot to wear, and something that made the women under them non-entities. I recall bristling, not because my professor objected to these garments – I did as well – but because she was being so logical about it. I was offended by these garments on a visceral level; surely it was unnecessary for her to justify and rationalize her dislike of these oppressive garments.

I’ve thought of that experience many times over the years, and whether it is important to be able to articulate why we object to something, if we feel that objection strongly. But I remained unchanged in my dislike of the Burka, Niqab, and other Islamic head garments, and my belief that these garments oppress women.

Skip ahead more than two decades to recent years, when two very different observations – young women redefining feminism as an intersectional, beautiful and powerful thing; and expressions of raw torment and anger in the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore – pushed me to seek out experiences and words beyond those of well-intentioned white liberals.

Why did the veil re-emerge among university-educated and professional women? Is it really a symbol of female oppression? Does it signify rejection of the west? Why can it inspire such fear and revulsion?”

Every “Aha” moment led to three new questions. Every smashed assumption led to the surfacing of ever deeper assumptions. My searching led me further and further into the stories and experiences of “others.”

The learning curve was steep, but eventually it came back to Muslim women wearing coverings.

Different types of coverings for Muslim women

Today the hijab, the least concealing of these garments, is creating a maelstrom of viscerally-motivated backlash. In France there is a ban against wearing any headscarf within public schools (this includes students, preventing those who wear hijab from attending), and for those who work in public service (France also has a ban against wearing face coverings like the burqa anywhere in public). In the U.S. women wearing headscarves are being verbally and physically attacked.

Set aside arguments about religious liberties, fears of terrorism, and oppression of women. Seriously, take all those arguments running around in your head and set them to the side for a moment.

Whose opinions matter in this? Yours? Mine? Do either of us really have any personal experience that we can bring to this debate? The answer is No. Muslim women who choose whether or not to wear head coverings are the only people whose experiences matter in this discussion.

Some Muslim women believe the hijab to be oppressive. But some Muslim women believe the hijab to be a feminist statement. Let me say that again: wearing the hijab can be a statement of feminism.

Is it possible to be a Muslim Feminist? How do these beliefs fit together?” 
In either case, the women who believe the hijab is oppressive and those who believe it is feminist are not looking to white, non-Muslim westerners to tell them what is and is not oppressive; what feminism does and does not look like; and what they must or must not do to combat patriarchy.

When we declare that women in Islamic countries must be freed from their hijabs and other coverings, we are not supporting them. When we wear a headscarf to show solidarity with Muslim women, we are not supporting them. Why? Because you and I do not get to decide how to show support for Muslim women; only they do. Not convinced?

How do you feel when your parents tell you what you need to do with your life? What? They don’t know what’s best for you?

Oh, you’re part of the small percentage who actually do appreciate and follow your parents’ advice. Well then, what if a stranger told you what you need to do with your life? A stranger who not only knows nothing about you or your situation, but has never been in your situation?

Right. Strangers have no business telling you what to do with your life, because they haven’t a clue about your life.

For the purpose of this post, let’s assume none of us want to ban the hijab because we are Islamophobic. Let’s assume we really do have good intentions: good, white, liberal, western intentions.

Western Imperialism is the problem here: our belief that we know what’s best for other cultures. I grew up on that shit. And it is only in the past couple years that I have learned how extraordinarily narrow my view of the world has been, how insidious the Western Imperialist propaganda. It distorts everything I see. I am very much still learning, and the only thing that helps is listening to people tell their stories.

That may sound simple, but it bears repeating:


Listen to listen, not to respond or debate. If you find yourself resisting, objecting, questioning, notice that in yourself and then push those thoughts aside and once again listen. You may never quite understand; after all, how can we understand an experience born of an existence in a culture not our own? (And that culture could be that of a Muslim in Pakistan, or a Black Christian in the U.S.)

Assume they are right. Because they are. They are sharing their own experience, and that can’t be wrong.

You will become immersed in a complex debate that is far more interesting and informative than anything your white western ill-informed opinions would imagine. I don’t mean this as an insult, but as an invitation. Set aside what you believe to be true, and listen to the experiences of those who have lived it.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Clinic Escort

Content Warning: abortion, mention of anti-choice violence.

It was a blustery morning, a small group of us standing in front of the Planned Parenthood clinic as usual. We were still reeling from the recent home sniper shooting of Dr. Short from Canada just days earlier (Dr. Short did not die, but the injuries he sustained ended his surgical career). The days following the attempted assassination, my volunteers showed up full of unfocused anger and fear. Several had to stop volunteering because their significant others demanded it. For every volunteer I lost, two new ones appeared to take their place, infuriated that people murdered doctors and terrorized women, yet had the gall to call themselves “pro-LIFE.”

But some of the volunteers we lost had been clinic escorts for years, had been indoctrinated into clinic defense during the era of Operation Rescue storming clinics and shutting them down with brute force: beefy white men letting us know that their Might was Right. The loss of some of our most dedicated volunteers impacted all of us.

We had heated debates about raising funds for bullet proof vests, and I explained repeatedly the company line about not going that route, because we didn’t want to be the ones to escalate. I didn’t agree with that logic, but I also knew that there were no funds, that it would be cost prohibitive to purchase enough vests to cover the bodies of volunteers at our seven clinics, and most importantly that the decision had already been made by those further up the chain.

And so half a dozen of us were there on this blustery morning, a morning like any other except that recent events made emotions raw and I’d been doing double duty as therapist for angry and frightened volunteers and their significant others for days.

One of the clinic’s regular protesters, one of our most vociferous and ruthless protesters, drove up to the curb and parked in her usual spot on the street in front of the clinic. The protesters already there, mostly older folks who tended to pray quietly, gathered around her car. As Jenny got out from behind the driver’s seat, a man got out from the passenger’s side.

Jenny’s body language conveyed pride and self-satisfaction at this guest she brought with her. The other protesters seemed giddy to be in this man’s company.

And he was… perhaps in his 50s or 60s, a stout, white man. He was wearing a long trench coat. I didn’t care for that trench coat. So much could be hidden there. Who was this man that they were all fawning over? He looked boldly towards us. They were too far away to catch what they were saying. But even from that distance it was apparent that he sized us up. The protesters around him, encouraged, stole looks in our direction.

We’d developed unwritten, unspoken rules of conduct over the years. For the most part, protesters and clinic defenders did not talk to each other. In fact it was a rule for volunteering, to not engage with the protesters. Since our primary focus was to do everything in our power to create a safe and calm experience for people entering the clinic, shouting matches or debates of any kind were not tolerated.

Some of the protesters would lecture us now and then. Ask how we could live with ourselves, sleep at night, with blood on our hands. Ask us how many babies we’d helped kill. Preach to us about God’s judgment. Pray for us.

When clients drove up, clinic defenders would try to create a physical buffer between them and the protesters, who would start yelling about murder and thrusting graphic pictures at them, trying to physically stall their entry into the clinic. If necessary we would loudly tell the protesters to “stop pushing.”

But other than those exchanges, there was very little interaction, not even much eye contact. It was an odd dance that we danced.

Mr. Trench coat fished inside his coat. We all were already on high alert, and I felt a burst of adrenaline surge through my body.

He pulled out a camera and started taking pictures, then started walking brazenly towards us and the clinic building. This was all very much outside of our rules of conduct and it was highly unnerving.

As a group, we clustered on the sidewalk and parking spaces to stop his progress. Jenny, clearly emboldened and energized, walked in step with him. The other protesters came a few steps behind, timidly. He stopped a couple feet in front of us and again sized us up. In addition to me, one of the volunteers was a young woman. He looked the two of us over. My skin crawled. And then with a hint of an accent (German?) he asked me if I knew who Margaret Sanger was. I was so taken off guard, I nodded Yes. He started talking about Sanger and the Nazis. This didn’t make any sense at all (Hitler was notoriously anti-choice), and my brain scrambled to make sense of his words and the appearance of this esteemed stranger.

He looked at the other woman and asked her if she’d ever had an abortion. I stiffened. She looked him in the eye but didn’t answer. He then turned to me and asked the same thing. I focused on steadying my breathing, and paying attention to his body movements. He talked a bit about abortions, graphically, but my brain started tuning out his words and focusing on his behavior. I felt blood pumping to my arms and legs, every part of my body on high alert. He took some pictures of us, particularly we women. We were in a public space, he had the right; and at that moment one of my volunteers was recording all of this on our video camera.

Abruptly the man in the trench coat stepped off the sidewalk and started walking towards the clinic entrance. I touched the arms of the two people on either side of me, and silently as a group we all walked calmly but quickly and positioned ourselves in front of the clinic door. We stood shoulder to shoulder.

So coolly and deliberately, he took pictures of us in front of the door. The glass was tinted, so between that and our bodies he couldn’t see anyone inside.

Having realized we would not answer his questions, he started talking with Jenny. Asking her about the protesting activities and of course about what she knew of abortions at this clinic.

And we stood, bolstering one another. My mind recognized that if he intended violence, he most likely would have done so by now. But my body remained on high alert, and I could feel the same from the volunteers on either side of me.

After a final assessing look, Mr. Trench coat and Jenny walked back to her car. The older protesters shook his hand with obvious adoration. Jenny puffed up again at having delivered an obviously important person to town. They got into her car and drove off, and the remaining protesters resumed their typical quiet prayers with seeming relief.

I exchanged glances with the volunteers to either side, and let out a long breath. “Good job, everyone. I'll go start a fresh pot of coffee,” I told them, and went into the clinic to give a report to the clinic manager.

Epilog: With the help of some pro-choice friends, we were able to identify our visitor as Father Paul Max, referred to as a “Pro-Life Pioneer.”

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Child Archetype

I’ve always said that there’s a statute of limitations on blaming your parents for your problems. By the time you turn 30, you can’t legitimately blame them if you aren’t happy with your life. (For the sake of this reasoning, let’s assume that your parents were not grossly abusive.)

My parents were neither the best nor the worst, and my childhood was neither the most nurturing nor the least. I would say we had a typical amount of family dysfunction for that generation.

Today I have close relationships with both of my parents. Not only have I forgiven them for any missteps they made raising me and my siblings; it is my strongest wish that they have forgiven themselves. Our relationships are based on how we treat one another now, and all of us have grown and evolved since those early days.

All of that said, naturally I still struggle with issues that were first set in motion during my childhood. Those patterns are deep and many will always be there, even as some are easier to rewrite than others. Some of those patterns continue to find expression in everyday life. And every once in a while, I am given a glimpse of where that pattern started in my childhood.

I’ve shared before a familiar pattern for me where I feel unappreciated and misunderstood. Sometimes it’s at work. Unfortunately, it describes my current living situation. This pattern has surfaced time and again, despite my deliberate efforts to respond to it differently each time in the hopes of “figuring it out.”

I’ve been pondering lately the storyline of the misunderstood and mistreated hero. You can find him or her in countless stories: Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, The Hulk, John from The Green Mile. The more I thought about it, the more characters I came up with who matched this description.

I wondered if there was an Archetype that fit this type of character and did a little digging. Carl Jung references the Child Archetype, a common human theme if you think about all children as being powerless, fully dependent on others, and likely to feel misunderstood or even mistreated. This is an experience that most of us had, and if our circumstances included being belittled or mocked (whether at home or at school), we can relate to that feeling.

This was so obvious: a widely experienced Archetype that most of us can relate to, by virtue of the realities of being powerless children, unable to get away from harmful people or circumstances.

I’m sure I could come up with dozens of examples from my childhood. Growing up with three siblings meant I didn’t always get my way. Moving around a lot as we did, I was bound to have some teachers and classmates who didn’t take to me. But suddenly one childhood memory crystalized in my mind. It happened at easily the most trying time for my family, where poor health, an unwelcoming community, and insufficient income impacted each of us deeply.

I’d made a mistake in the kitchen; I didn’t mean to. My dad yelled at me then stormed off. When I tried to run to my room to cry my mom wrapped me in a hug, keeping me there, so that I was still there when my dad returned to the room and he was able to scold me again.

I can imagine the scene so clearly. But more than that, I can feel it. I can feel the tightening in my chest, like I’m being smothered, it’s hard to breathe. I can feel the sense of being trapped, desperate to get away but unable to. Every part of my body wanting to run away. My body remembers it like it was yesterday.

The same way I feel smothered and trapped, tight chest and hard to breathe, when I am reprimanded by a boss even though I’m doing my best.

Snap. So obvious. Why hadn’t I made the connection before?

Most likely I had, probably several times. But this time, I felt it. And this time, I have the understanding that this is an experience of childhood: of course we feel powerless; of course we feel trapped. Of course at times we feel misunderstood and mistreated. And because we do not have the means to change our situation, we are trapped. It isn’t an illusion; it is a fact of being a child dependent on others.

I am a person who tries her best, who is authentic and genuine. At work I put forth my best effort. I want to please. I want my bosses to like me. I want my landlords to like me. And yet sometimes, I get a boss or landlord who doesn’t seem to notice my efforts and my successes. Instead they focus on my failings, or even fabricate failings.

I feel misunderstood, because I’m trying my best and they don’t see that. I feel mistreated because not only do they not acknowledge my accomplishments, they reprimand me. And immediately my body goes back to that childhood response: constricted chest, desperation, trapped, want to run away but cannot.

Trying to resolve a tricky situation, a misunderstanding, is never helped when the body and mind are screaming, “I’m trapped,” so loudly you can’t think straight. And honestly, I’m done trying to figure out these people. I think the world is populated with people who act out their own unresolved issues around power and control, who take out their own frustrations on those least deserving of mistreatment, and most likely to take it without punching them in the throat.

And given a lifetime of trying different techniques to resolve this pattern, I can only conclude that people who act out unconsciously will not stop doing so because of something I say or do. Period.

So where does that leave me, and the rest of us who can remember so vividly how it feels to be a misunderstood and powerless child, when we find ourselves being mistreated? Heck if I know. But the sooner I can remember that my physical response is coming from my childhood when I had no control, and now that I’m an adult I do have control, I hope at the very least to disengage much more quickly from this pattern.

I won’t change the other person. But neither am I trapped, with no control over their ongoing mistreatment. I can always choose to walk away.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015


Content warning: discussion of terrorist attacks on 9/11, death count, and racism

Note: I am taking my cue from friends who are trying to distinguish the United States from America in their language. Thus, "United Statesian" instead of "American."

For most of us September 11 is a significant day. For many if not most United Statesians, it is a day of collective mourning and trauma. It is the day we decided that we would not be bullied by terrorists.

I considered myself a pacifist until the day the Twin Towers came down, when I watched the plane slam into the second tower. I never could have anticipated the bloodlust that filled me, the fear and rage the demanded swift and bloody retaliation.

Al-Qaeda? Bin Laden? I wanted them all killed immediately. I believed our government more than capable of carrying out swift and targeted assassinations of those responsible.

As the months wore on, it was painful waiting for retribution. I just wanted the U.S. to hurry up and do away with those who had cut us so deeply.

The whole sleight-of-hand didn’t escape my notice, how we invaded the wrong country. But then it seemed as though we all collectively experienced amnesia, or at least a hazy recollection about that. The invasion commenced, and we saw a desolate country bombed even further into the Dark Ages at our hands.

The body count grew. From an initial 3,000 lives lost, our War on Terror has now resulted in an estimated 7,000 U.S. troops killed and 1.3 million Iraqis, Afghanis and Pakistanis, the overwhelming majority of whom were civilians.* And while the aftermath of 9/11 includes thousands suffering from PTSD, cancer, and other health issues, those numbers are increased exponentially from the War on Terror. 

How many years, and how many lives, in retaliation for 9/11? What could explain this body count, other than vengeance? How many brown lives make up for the loss of one white life? How many foreign lives for one United Statesian life?

And for fourteen years now, Muslim Americans, Americans who wear turbans, Americans who look possibly Middle Eastern, are subjected to discrimination, racism, and hate crimes. Collectively white United Statesians abandon logic, insisting that Muslims devalue life and are all potential terrorists – even though Muslims comprise nearly 1/4 of the world’s population and if that were true, a non-Muslim United States would have long since ceased to exist.

Every 9/11 we Remember, we Never Forget. We never forget the lives that were lost, the heroes birthed in an instant, out of necessity, those who rose to unimaginable feats of self-sacrifice. I hope to never forget the stories of courage and sacrifice.

But we also never forget how it felt to be so violated, and how we collectively raised our fist and declared to the terrorists, “You will not make cowards of us!”

And then we lashed out not just at terrorists, but at all Middle Easterners, at Afghanis, Iraqis and Pakistanis, at brown people. We took 430 lives for every one United States citizen lost on 9/11. We sacrificed 7,000 of our own seeking retribution. We did it wrong.

We did it wrong.

We were so blinded by hatred and fear that we lashed out, indiscriminately and repeatedly, for years. We have lashed out at our own. In order to protect ourselves from ever letting terrorists come into our country and hurt us again, in order to protect ourselves from feeling our deep fear, we have become a police state: airport security which is ever more intense, yet still woefully inept; police being equipped like military; surveillance cameras on street corners; our personal communications being monitored.

There were proud moments coming out of 9/11. So many stories of heroism. A country coming together in solidarity, declaring that we would not cower in the face of terrorism. Coming together in strength and resilience and courage.

Where did we go wrong? What could we have done differently? As a world leader, what if we did not go on a killing spree, a rampage of vengeance? What if instead, we had carried out covert actions to weed out Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden without decimating countries already desperately poor and lacking in modern technologies and civil rights?

What if instead of invading those countries with military force, we instead worked with them to strengthen real economic and government stability, worked with their citizens to support efforts of equality and civil rights? Rather than asserted our white imperialism and belief that we knew what was right for others, what if instead we helped prop up those aspects of those countries that were already improving living conditions, infrastructure, and stability?

What if instead of perpetuating our legacy as an empire, asserting as always that Might is Right, we started a new legacy – one of being an ally to countries in their efforts to improve themselves? Not sweeping in and making our usual mess of things, but acknowledging their own agency, intelligence, and abilities.

We could have chosen to be a new kind of world leader, one that fosters home-grown self-actualization, one that trusts “even” foreigners and “even” brown people to make the best decisions for their countries.

Instead we went down a well-worn path.

We did it wrong.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Might I have a bit of earth?

Disclaimer: after waking up to a social justice perspective, every previously-loved book and movie now prompts an essential question: would it now pass the social justice test, or would I find it offensive? I will address this question further along in the post.

“Might I have a bit of earth?”

A favorite book when I was a child was The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. My take-away was that a spoiled, sullen, sickly girl was transformed by putting her hands in the soil and bringing a forgotten garden back to life. The story also had tantalizing features like large castles with locked rooms, hidden gardens and cabins in the woods, and lots of secrets.

I discovered those hidden places along with Mary, uncovered their secrets, and tended them with curiosity and a growing love. It was an amazing work of fantasy and escapism, and I must have read the book at least a dozen times.

There are many things from my childhood that nurtured an appreciation for nature: family backpacking trips, a big brother who dabbled in scavenging edibles like dandelion leaves, and even a year spent in Scotland where we got to live in a gigantic castle-like house complete with locked doors and a huge backyard with hidden places (although in truth, I was often scared in that house and many nights would run from my bedroom into my parents’ for safety).

For many years as an adult I brought what nature I could into my environment. As a young adult and new mom living in a bleak apartment, I had dozens of house plants, growing ever more by taking cuttings from the existing plants (philodendrons were my favorite). As my son got older, I made sure to find apartments that had at least a small yard. And in these I grew what I could, even if only bold colored impatiens and a couple tomato plants. In colder weather I found protected areas to sit outside, and would bundle up with a book so that I didn’t have to be inside where it was so dreary. When my ex-girlfriend and I became home owners, I slowly and lovingly created my first real garden. Every hour spent in it was therapeutic and soothing, and after three years I was delighted with the results. 

Living in the South Bay, also known as Silicon Valley, California, we had an abundance of sunshine and warmth. I filled my small garden with lavender, rosemary, lobelia and alyssum. Wildly blooming jasmine greeting us home one time from vacation with a blurry of color and an intoxicating scent. I dabbled in medicinal herbs such as chamomile and borage. We had a dwarf Meyer lemon tree that gave us lemons year-round.

I never once had a garden during the years I was a park ranger. Quite simply, I was very busy not only doing my job, but doing all the training in my personal time that it took to do my job well. But more than that, I lived in a fish bowl. It was a common occurrence for campers and other park visitors to knock on the door of my home with a real concern or with simple curiosity, rather than go to the park office or look for the ranger on duty. The expectation was that I would assist them. I always found it very disruptive, and would often be derailed from whatever project I was working on, particularly if the interruptions were frivolous.

To be outside invited interruption. People couldn’t resist the friendly ranger, whether in uniform or not. Everyone likes to imagine park rangering as their dream career, and they can’t wait to ask all kinds of questions. Some folks are just plain lonely; or bored without their TV and Internet. And then too, being outside meant I was more likely to see rule violations: a car speeding by, a dog running off-leash, or a camper breaking branches off a live tree for their campfire. And again, expectations (and my sense of responsibility) dictated that I would intervene.

Living in park housing meant that I never got away from the job. It meant that home was not a refuge from work. And it meant that my yard was not a place to relax and create a garden. Instead I hiked and jogged on forest trails, and immersed myself in nature as much as I could. Still, I missed having that bit of earth for myself.

Before buying this trailer and moving to the California coast, I spent three years in an apartment outside of Portland, Oregon. I had a very small yard, facing a stand of tall fir trees, which I enclosed so that both my dog and cat could spend time outside but safely contained to the yard. My yard rarely got direct sunlight, and during the most favorable weather the trees dripped these disgusting little worms; while I spent time outside, my yard was more the big litter box for my animals than a comfortable place to relax or garden.

The one redeeming feature of this suburban city was its use of green spaces. Tucked in alongside creeks and bordered by apartments and houses were miles of paved walking and biking trails. It was “urban nature,” but I’ll take what I can get, and a side benefit was seeing some really lovely creative gardening in the yards butting up against the trail.

It’s been almost a year since I moved to the rural California coast in my trailer. I live in a trailer park, packed in among my neighbors like sardines. There is very little privacy, only made up for with an extraordinary zeal for gossip. Add to this some tension with the park owner around me creating a safe outside enclosure for me and my animals: my efforts to create a tasteful and well-build enclosed space were met with disapproval, delivered with condescension and antagonism. On too many of our extraordinarily beautiful and sunny days I was sequestered inside. I looked longingly through my window at a sliver of sequoias until finally I came up with a plan that I thought would meet their approval, typed up a letter to the owners with my plans, and went outside with my screw driver and screws.

Within short order I had an area around my picnic table defined with lattice: not secure enough to keep in the cat, but enough for my dog and to create a sense of privacy. Spontaneously one day I felt compelled to go to a nursery and buy some planter boxes and flowering plants. Next thing I knew, I was unpacking my yard decorations: a beautiful garden globe, and some sweet mini lanterns on a string.

I started moving the gravel that covers the ground to create a walkway with a border. Later I started lining it with small rocks.

Gardening is an excuse for adults to play outside. I started small, and found every addition motivated me even more to create a nice space, in the space that I have. My plans bring me outside. The pleasant space that I have created keeps me outside. My yard beckons me.

It is ironic that I am spending far more time outside now that I’m living in a trailer park. Every day I come outside and catch up on Facebook while having a cup of coffee. Some days I do my writing outside, on occasion staring out into the trees behind my yard. I come outside to water my plans, or tidy up my gravel-lined pathways. Most nights I do yoga under the stars, then lay back and stargaze before heading in to bed.

The healing power of spending time outside, soaking up sunshine (or liquid sunshine, here in the Pacific Northwest), and breathing in fresh, tree-oxygenated air is profound and cannot be understated.

My message to you? Find a way to get outside. If you like to hike, explore natural areas near you. Urban areas often have wildlife preserves, botanical gardens, or paths along greenways. Bring growing things into your home, no matter how humble. I don’t bother with house plants anymore, because I don’t need more things to keep me busy indoors. But outside you can grow many vegetables in pots, not to mention gorgeous flowers and herbs. Put your hands in the dirt. Cut some fresh basil into your salad. Or create spaces with what you’ve got: use rocks and wood to define pathways and entrances. Everything you do gives you more time in the healing outdoors, and will create a pleasing space that is all yours. Creating your own refuge is an act of empowerment.

Oh, and the book The Secret Garden? Turns out it’s really racist.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Tears in the Sky

The natural world has always been my place of refuge. Where I can breathe deeply and feel calm filling in the spaces that have become encrusted with frustration and bitterness. Where I can look out at the water, or gaze at the sun, or look longingly up at the stars, and understand that the world is much greater than my pain in the moment.

The natural world also helps me to understand those things that seem incomprehensible, especially to one without a religious or spiritual tether. Life and death happen; disasters happen. Death is necessary in order to sustain life. And from death, comes rebirth. There is no Good, no Bad. Nature is a system that strives only to maintain balance, and ironically nature is most in balance when humans resist the urge to interfere with it.

When I realized that I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, when I started to understand how completely it had derailed my life and my plans, I was angry. I wanted to blame people, institutions, events. And I could do that: people, institutions, and events all aligned in such a way that I emerged irreparably damaged. But the only thing that provided any solace, any comfort or understanding, was the realization that I am a part of this world, and the world is wild and unpredictable: accidents happen; death happens; tragedies happen, and leave behind deep wounds.

It is tempting to believe that my family has endured more than its share of hardship in recent years. My son is surviving cancer, diagnosed three years ago. My niece died from cancer two years ago, just as she was becoming an adult. My son and his wife have more recently endured several personal tragedies, one after the other in rapid succession, and the fallout has been extreme.

I realize others experience hardship and loss, and that my family isn't unique. I know one only needs to scratch the surface to find grief that is fresh, or old and unhealed, or more likely both. And sometimes people are battered by too many tragedies all at once, and it seems like we will never be carefree again. We start feeling weighted down as the hurts are piled on us; it feels harder and harder to get up, let alone start a new day with hope and gratitude.

Sometimes I sit on a bluff overlooking the ocean doing gentle yoga and trying to quiet my thoughts. Inevitably feelings of sadness and discouragement surface; they’re never very deep. I imagine offering my grief to the ocean, where it will be carried away by the currents and absorbed by the waves.

Some days I wonder how long – how many days, weeks, months, years – will I have to come here and offer my grief to the ocean before I feel the sorrow cleansed from my heart?

Last night the sky was clear, and the stars sparkled brilliantly overhead. It was cool but not cold, with a delicious moist breeze that felt wonderful on my face. I did my yoga under the stars, breathing in deeply, breathing out fully. I imagined the tears of my family falling upwards and becoming the stars in the sky. I realized that the sky could contain all of our tears. There are stars enough, sky enough, for all of the tears, for all of the world’s grief. It was a comforting thought.

After finishing my yoga I laid back and gazed up at the stars. We are made of star stuff. I tried to imagine what this really means. I tried to feel it. I come from the stars. My tears come from the stars. Everything that happens on this planet, in my family, is a part of the dance of the stars. Every hope derailed because of a physical or mental accident, every life cut short too soon, every tear cried, every family in mourning – all of this came from the stars and will return to the stars.

Every ache of my heart, I release to the waves. Every tear I cry, I send up to the stars. I don’t know how long it will take, but I know that no matter how infinite my grief feels, the ocean and the sky are vast enough to contain it.

Friday, September 25, 2015

To my friends who aren’t social justice activists

To my friends who aren’t social justice activists:

About a year ago my eyes opened to the True America. My entire life I’ve always considered myself a Humanist, always strove not to be racist, homophobic, sexist; to be accepting of all differences. I believed I was doing quite well in this regard. And then my eyes were opened.

The protesting that erupted in Ferguson, MO, and echoed across the country, stirred something deep inside. As I read more, I started to understand generation after generation, hundreds of years, of state-sanctioned discrimination and oppression against black Americans. And I started to grasp the profound way that would completely impact a black person’s reality of America, and the depth of pain expressed in the protesters, that after hundreds of years and the blood lost during the civil rights movement, still Americans of color are disadvantaged to an extraordinary degree in almost every measurable facet of life. I started to realize how silly it was for white people (like me) to suggest that black people “get over slavery,” because it isn’t only about slavery; it is about a system that started with stealing people from their families and their homes, and has continued to keep black people as a group from having equal opportunities. The stories of slavery are personal, and expressed in family stories that traverse slavery, to Jim Crowe laws, to the education-to-prison pipeline, to the cultural appropriation of mocking black people for their culture yet celebrating white people who steal that culture.

And while the scenarios are different, the systemic oppression and discrimination are realities for all people of color in this country.

Weeks later I came into a conversation on Facebook discussing whether racism could go in both directions. The conversation reminded me of my ex-girlfriend Mari, who has a white American mother and an indigenous Guatemalan father. Mari and her siblings lived at different times in predominantly white, and predominantly Latino neighborhoods in Los Angeles. When they lived in the white neighborhood, they were seen as the brown kids. And when they lived in the Latino neighborhood they were seen as the white kids. In both cases they were looked down on and mistreated. Thinking of Mari’s experience I thought, aha, racism can go both ways!

But in this Facebook conversation, the concept of reverse-racism was emphatically rejected. Some of the folks trying to explain why were so frustrated at having to explain for the thousandth time, their comments didn’t make sense to me; plus they were introducing concepts that were unfamiliar to me. One of the things I heard was that “hurt feelings” (of a white person finding themselves among brown or black people who do not like them because of their race) is not comparable to systemic oppression. I got hung up on the term “hurt feelings,” because that seemed to minimize the pain of that experience.

I left that conversation not understanding and feeling frustrated. Over the following weeks and months I started asking the occasional tentative question, and doing more listening than responding. And then, my understanding happened. I can’t recall when, it just did. But when it did, my entire perspective changed. It was like waking up to The Matrix.

As a more clear illustration, I’ll use an example of a white child and a black child. The families of each are living in a neighborhood where the predominant race is not their own, and in both cases the children are ostracized, ridiculed and tormented. To be sure, both children are having horrible experiences.

In the case of the black child, this experience is only the tip of the iceberg. The truth is, in this society, everything is rigged to benefit whites over blacks. Her teachers are more likely to judge this black child as unruly, and less likely to judge her as intellectually curious. Because of generations of economic disparity, statistically speaking this child’s family is not likely to have the financial resources to relocate (just think of compounding interest and how it’s exponentially better to start saving at 25 than to start at 45 even if you contribute at a higher rate; just imagine the societal impacts over the course of hundreds of years). Then as this child becomes an adult, she will have more difficulty securing jobs and getting home loans. Her uncomfortable childhood is simply one small facet of an entire system that oppresses and discriminates against her, her entire life, because her skin is black.

In the case of the white child, this experience with the neighborhood kids is an isolated experience. Her teachers are more likely to treat her fairly. And if not, her parents are more likely to have access to the finances to relocate. And when she grows up, she will enter the adult world that is built in every way to favor whites. Even if she is passed over for a job because of affirmative action policies and her job given to a black woman, she will have far more chances at finding other employment than the young black woman above.

Their unpleasant (possibly even traumatic) childhood experiences are actually entirely different because of context. The white child experiences a difficult childhood; the black child experiences a difficult childhood as just a small part of living in a society that discriminates against her at every turn.

People of any color have the potential to dislike, mistrust, or even hate people of any other color. That is prejudice.

But racism requires not only race-based prejudice, but power. Racism requires the ability to oppress. White people mistreating black people because of the color of their skin are prejudiced and racist, because their mistreatment is a component of, and perpetuation of, an entire system of racial-based oppression and discrimination. Black people mistreating white people are prejudiced but not racist, because their actions are isolated events and do nothing to oppress white people. In fact in this culture, it is impossible for black people to oppress white people.

This same analysis applies to conversations. If a white person says, “black people are thugs,” given the context of systemic racism and oppression in this country, not only are they conveying their racism, they are perpetuating systemic racism and oppression.

If a black person says, “white people are selfish,” there is no context of systemic racism and oppression, so their comment is not racist. Their words in no way perpetuate a system that oppresses white people, because such a system does not exist. Their words express their own individual feelings, and no more.

The balance of power is everything when talking about equality, racism, and bigotry. Black people uttering insults about white people are not racist. Gays and lesbians who utter criticisms against homophobic people are not bigots, and are not “just as bad.” Women uttering insults about men are not sexist; often they are calling out sexism in men.

Criticisms spoken by the oppressor about the oppressed are used to demean and further oppress.

Criticisms spoken by the oppressed about the oppressor are a cry of rage and outrage against the oppressor and the system of oppression. Those words, the words from the oppressed, are words of justifiable anger; they are words of courage; they are the words of someone crying out for equality.

At this point each of us has a choice.

1. We can point the finger at the oppressed and say,

You’re just as bad! You can’t generalize like that! Your words perpetuate hatred, misunderstanding, and division. Furthermore, you have just criticized me and you don’t even know me. You are the bigot here!

2. Or we can say,

I also disagree with oppression and discrimination, and I don’t want to be a part of it. I’m white, and I want to do everything I can to not perpetuate racism. I will call out others on racism. I will support people of color when they speak out against racism, even when their words are angry. I am far more offended at racism than I am at their expressions of anger. If I initially bristled when the oppressed said “white people are…” and felt personally offended, I will acknowledge that my hurt feelings are my problem and my responsibility. I refuse to let my hurt feelings derail me from the actual problem of working against racism. And I will continually strive to eradicate any racist thoughts inside me; I will work hard to make sure that when someone says, “white people are…,” they won’t mean me.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Black Lives Matter

In this country, white *feelings* are more important than black *lives.* In this country, even among white progressives, *polite discourse* is more important than *justice.*

I do believe we as a nation are at a critical crossroads. And as devastated as I am by the lives lost this past year that led to an eruption of outrage across the country, these lost souls helped to birth a movement. Have you not sensed the significance of this movement gaining momentum, rather than succumbing to hopelessness?

More than anything, I want the momentum and collective outrage around this country's abysmal race relations to not run out of steam. I want THIS to be the time that meaningful change finally happens in this country, where being brown or black is no longer a sentence for dramatically reduced opportunities in every facet of your life, no longer a guarantee of a constant onslaught of discrimination and microaggressions, no longer a Life Sentence.

If this movement dissolves into despair, I will despair. This is why, when I learn that social justice activists are continuing to disrupt, continuing to confront, continuing to demand to be taken seriously, my heart feels hope. THIS IS THE TIME. Do not balk at the extraordinary measures that are being taken, that MUST be taken. Do not hide behind your feelings of discomfort, do not shy away from the revelation of your privilege, do not withdraw your support just because it's getting messy.

Challenge yourself. Challenge your feelings, and your sense of how things should be done. Expand your perspective and try to imagine, really imagine, what is at stake here. If you believe that black lives matter as much as white lives, there is no "but." If you believe that black and brown lives should be treated with the same rights and opportunities as white lives, fall in behind this powerful movement. We cannot let our discomfort stifle this opportunity. THIS IS THE TIME.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Life Simply Is... Determining Safe from Predatory

Trigger warning: feeling unsafe, unwanted romantic advances

NOTE: While I identify as queer, this post is about the interactions between men and women – particularly important because of our cultural training and expectations within the patriarchy. I do not mean to imply #allmen, or that these issues are exclusive to heterosexual encounters.

Several years ago I set out on a backpacking trip with my late dog Jackie. It was my first solo backpacking trip in a very long time. I felt determined, strong and independent, but also a bit nervous.

On the hike in I passed a man hiking out. In short order, all with a friendly demeanor, he asked me if I was hiking alone, how long I was staying, and what camp was to be my final destination. There was nothing about him or his physical behavior that sent up red flags. Being the good docile woman I was raised to be, and without having prepared for this, I gave him full disclosure.

From that point on, my thoughts circled around that interchange. Now he knew that I was traveling alone, and he knew where I was setting up camp: i.e., where I would be sleeping. How extraordinarily vulnerable I had just made myself, if he had ill intent. What if he had ill intent? Was I in danger?

And then my thoughts went to the absence of things feeling “off” with him, and wondered if he was just being friendly. But his questions were all wrong. What kind of insensitive, clueless man asks a woman that he sees hiking if she’s hiking with anyone, and where she’s setting up camp? Even if his intentions were harmless, his ignorance was inexcusable. The more I thought about that possibility, the more I wished I’d schooled him in this: “Are you really asking a woman hiking if she is alone, and where she’s going to camp? Are you trying to make her scared?”

(While nothing untoward happened during my camping trip, this encounter utterly ruined it for me. I could not sleep because of my need to listen for someone approaching, and running scenarios through my mind of how to protect myself.)

I use this pair of interpretations a lot: either a man has ill-intent, or he is oblivious. And even if he’s oblivious, he’s culpable. How can you be a man living in society today, and care about women, without being aware of the safety issues they face? How careless, reckless and damaging to play into women’s training to put accommodation before personal safety, to put them in that position? It is just another form of patriarchal mistreatment.

I like to say that I was born a feminist. I can remember as young as 10 crossing my arms across my chest and scowling at boys holding the door open for me, or being defiant if someone referred to me as a little lady. It makes me laugh to think about now. I guess my feminism has evolved since then.

But at the same time, I loved looking at myself in the mirror. Putting on hats, tilting them just so, smiling, turning my face this way and that. I was vain. I liked being pretty.

It is complicated being a woman in today’s society. It is complicated being a feminist. And so as my body has started to age, I have grieved the loss of that easy youthful beauty. As much as I embrace the concept of aging, and the importance of all life stages, it was hard to see that go. Really hard. At the same time, I looked forward to what many women admit to looking forward to: no longer being the object of men’s attention. This is a fact: many, many women look forward to becoming “invisible,” so that they no longer have to navigate the world of sorting out the clueless from the predators.

A few years ago I looked in the mirror and realized that my changing features no longer fit the hairstyle and color I’d been using. So I cut my hair short and let the gray come in. On the one hand, I was delighted to find that letting my hair go natural, and letting go of my youthful style, was actually more flattering. On the other, even though I liked the way I looked, I assumed that my short, gray hair would instantly make me invisible.

Not so.

Perhaps part of it is my age, and part is my social anxiety, but I cannot imagine ever pursuing romance with someone I don’t already know. It would be far too uncomfortable, for one. And for two, making a romantic connection is such a random thing, I don’t believe it can be done without first spending face-to-face time with someone. Chemistry cannot be determined over the Internet; at least that has been my experience.

And becoming romantic with someone would be a big deal for me right now. Big deal as in it would challenge my need for safety and predictability. I would have no interest in embarking on this challenge with a stranger.

Imagine my surprise to find strangers pursuing me. After moving to the California coast, several single neighbors took an immediate interest in me. Actually it felt like a contest, a race to see who could lay claim on me first. I was rather irrelevant. I must have been irrelevant, since their pissing contests started long before they got to know me.

I find that terribly demeaning and offensive. It feels objectifying, because they are interested in me based solely on my physical appearance and my single status. They don’t know me. And not surprisingly, with these particular strangers, I found as I got to know them a bit that they were terrible listeners. The two in particular who did the most vigorous pissing: one had a habit of negating everything I said, while the other would listen and then simply continue his own monolog. Flattering? No. Even after having the opportunity, they showed they werent interested in actually getting to know me.

Very recently a stranger asked me to connect with him on LinkedIn. I didn’t see any connections in common. However I have often asked to connect with strangers based on my career and personal interests in order to build my network. I accepted.

Soon after I received a message from him: it was a romantic invitation. It wasn’t graphic, I’ll give him that. But it was entirely inappropriate. He played a feel-sorry-for-me card (I won’t share what it was, just to preserve anonymity), and I can’t help but wonder if he often plays it as an excuse for making inappropriate romantic advances. He waxed on about my inviting smile, my charm, getting to know each other and “see how it goes.”

At first I was going to ignore his message, as I ignore those random “other” messages from strangers that show up in Facebook. But this one got under my skin, so I shared it with some friends for their thoughts.

Being a woman in today’s world, it is essential to know your safe places. Home should be a refuge (sadly it isn’t for many women). Work should be a refuge since it is a place of business, and a place we must be in order to make a living. Sadly it also often isn’t: I’ve frequently been propositioned by coworkers and customers who barely know me, if at all.

We already know the streets aren’t safe. And walking anywhere after dark isn’t safe. (During my years as a park ranger I did have the amazing experience of being able to walk nature trails in the dark and feel entirely safe, and it was completely liberating and life changing.) Group events are a mixed bag. I can understand people joining a book club or political group to find romance, but I am often frustrated to find men there trolling for fresh meat. It’s one thing if the suggestion of romance is the result of a budding friendship, and if the man is actually cued into the feedback the woman is giving. But it’s another for romantic or sexual overtures to come from a complete stranger, and/or to come despite signals of disinterest from the woman.

Men are taking advantage of our socialization, of our schooling to be courteous and accommodating. They are taking advantage of us, period.

So we find our safe places, devoid of unwanted advances, where we can breathe in peace. But when these questionable or outright inappropriate advances come into our safe places, it feels like a violation. It felt like a violation at work, it felt like a violation in my neighborhood, and it felt like a violation on my LinkedIn.

If men care about women, they need to open their eyes, stop playing the innocent card, and start considering how their actions might feel.

Intention isn’t good enough. It’s a hostile world out there for women, and we are busy night and day trying to navigate and interpret it. Men who love women need to school themselves. Here is the message I wrote back to the fellow on LinkedIn:

I don’t know you, so I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt – that you are simply oblivious, rather than predatory. LinkedIn is a professional network, not a dating site. If you are looking for women to date, go to a dating site. For you to send a stranger a romantic invitation on a professional network is entirely inappropriate, offensive and creepy. You don’t know me. You don’t know if I’m charming or inviting. All you know is my appearance based on one photo. You might be surprised to find that women are not flattered when strangers make unexpected romantic propositions to them. In a world where we are not safe to walk alone after dark, where we always have to interpret whether a man’s attention is safe or predatory, actions like yours add to the feeling that the world is unsafe. If you are in fact an honorable man with honorable intentions, then you need your actions to line up with that. Do not make romantic invitations towards women in inappropriate places, ever. Do not approach them in ways that might make them feel unsafe, ever. And I might suggest that in the future you start with an invitation of friendship, not romance. I don’t need or want to hear back from you. If you take to heart what I have written, you will do things differently in the future. If you don’t, I definitely don’t want to hear about it. Either way, it’s none of my business.