Saturday, December 31, 2016

Toasty Warm Toes

Some years we are eager to be done with, metaphorically slamming the door on the struggles, losses, and disappointments we endured. Sometimes starting a new year feels like the perfect time to take stock, and refocus our priorities for having a more fulfilling life. And sometimes a particular year offers up deeper understandings of our old patterns and provides insights into new ways of treading old ground.

For as long as I can remember, I have put people on pedestals: people I have crushes on, close friends, or family members I look up to. In my eyes this person can do no wrong. I excuse behavior in them that I would not in others. And despite any contrary evidence, my rosy image of them goes unchallenged and untarnished.

If they complain about a work expectation that I actually find reasonable, I validate them even so. If they share about being unnecessarily rude, I laugh with them. If they are in an intimate relationship, I always take their side if they talk about disagreements. I always reassure them that they are right no matter what, stroking their egos, praising and validating their most questionable behaviors. There is rarely friction between us, because I acquiesce – in innumerable ways, automatically and subconsciously. 

Idolizing them, having them on a pedestal, can last for weeks or as long as decades. But all of that changed when I got PTSD. Very few of my close friendships have survived me with PTSD. I wasn’t actually relying more on my friends, although I was giving less. I no longer had the energy to nurture and sustain my friendships in any consistent way, let alone validate my friends' every action and stroke their egos the way I used to. And with this core foundation of our relationship gone, the rest simply crumbled.

After the friendships would end, and my sense of betrayal and bitterness started to subside, I reviewed each friendship trying to figure out what had gone wrong - and if the problem started with my PTSD or much earlier. Each friend definitely gave something important to the friendship, and there were valid reasons that I valued their company. Still I found some startling commonalities among my close friends: where I validated, they criticized; where I acquiesced, they presumed; and where I chose my words with great care, they were flippant and harsh.

Because I had them on a pedestal, this arrangement did nothing to tarnish their shine. I neither expected nor asked friends to treat me with the care that I treated them. I neither expected nor asked friends to give my opinions, wants and needs equal weight. It has taken both my PTSD, and the loss of friendships, for me to realize that I have very poor skills at choosing friends and developing equitable friendships.

Learning to develop more balanced, intentional friendships will take time and practice. But what I leave behind in 2016 is this tendency to treat friends as idols, not as equals.

Another significant issue I can finally lay to rest regards my role as employee. I see myself as a “good employee:” I work hard, I am accountable, I take initiative, I learn quickly, and I’m comfortable working within a hierarchy. But it has long vexed me that while I am often appreciated and acknowledged in jobs for my contributions, in some jobs I am treated as though I’m a “bad employee.” In the latter situation I feel unfairly criticized, misunderstood, and targeted; and my work environment becomes uncomfortable enough that I leave the job as quickly as possible. Being treated as a “bad employee” has hurt and baffled me, and made me incredibly defensive. Mixed in with the sense of indignation are feelings of unworthiness and shame; even though I can’t figure out what I’m doing wrong, surely somehow it must be my fault. The jumble of emotions I feel after ending such jobs lingers for years.

It is my work in social justice that has expanded my understanding of the culture of capitalism, and some of its more destructive aspects. The driving force behind capitalism is greed: the desire to acquire money and/or power. And workers are there to be exploited to achieve maximum profit. 

Absolutely, a job is an agreement between the employer and the employee. But within that contract, the employer holds far more power than does the employee. Ultimately, the employer holds the power of taking away someone’s livelihood – which is very nearly a matter of life and death. The employer has the power of giving an employee a bad reference. And whether they fire you or force you out by making your job untenable, that shapes your marketability by affecting how long you stay at jobs. All of these ultimately can impact a person’s ability to earn a living, and we employees know it. 

Every time I had a boss who decided I was a “bad employee,” I tried a different approach for resolving it. Alongside my sense of being misunderstood was a sense of guilt and shame. Because that’s what we’re taught – it’s our fault, and our responsibility, to make things right. Despite trying many approaches, the result never changed: once a boss labeled me negatively, nothing I did changed that. 

Only recently have I discovered the missing puzzle piece through a better understanding of the culture of capitalism. Within a capitalist culture (and companies that embody such), a “good employee” is not defined as someone who is hard working, takes initiative, and learns quickly. A “good employee” is someone who takes abuse and mismanagement without complaining; does not call out a manager for behaving inappropriately; and considers it a personal failing if too much is asked of them. Within a capitalist culture it is far more important to go along with the herd than it is to do excellent work. Within capitalism, employees are to be exploited and are imminently replaceable.

In the places where I have excelled, I have been fortunate enough to work for a boss and/or an organization that nurtured a more holistic culture. In the places where I was targeted, it was because squirming under mistreatment and refusing to internalize corporate failings as my own did not fit within a capitalist culture. My contributions were irrelevant if I did not go along and keep quiet.

It took me far too many years, far too many tears and too much angst, to figure this one out. But finally I am ready to leave the confusion behind. I am an excellent employee, and I know what I bring to a job. And now I know that there are distinctly different company cultures: one in which I thrive, and one where I simply cannot survive. I am enormously grateful to have a job I love where I can thrive and grow, so what I take into 2017 is the peace of mind of having solved this puzzle at long last.

Just a couple weeks ago I discovered something else that was vitally important to my well-being. I spend a lot of time on Facebook. Over the years I have cultivated an amazing group of friends, many of whom are social justice warriors. Through them I continually have my thoughts challenged and perceptions stretched; I am introduced to new resources; and my awareness of institutional and systemic systems of oppression continues to expand. I am grateful for all of this.

But there is a flip side. Social justice folks are tuned into the horrific events that are happening in our country and across the world, and they share them prolifically on Facebook. And many of these stories are shared over and over again by different friends. So every time I’m on Facebook I am besieged by images and words of the horrible things that humans do to other humans, or the ways that some humans abandon other humans in need. I have tried to manage the influx of the horribleness by unfollowing friends whose posts contain graphic and violent photos, for example, and by filtering out keywords with

A couple weeks ago, one of my friends shared a harrowing story. Her story, which started out mundane, took a dramatic and violent turn. Parts of it were confusing, but I rushed through it in concern and dread. My heart was racing. And then she ended the story by disclosing that it had been a nightmare. I burst into tears.

I was so upset, I immediately shut down Facebook. I allowed my feelings to run through me, then sat quietly taking deep breaths. I felt completely drained.

This was a wake-up call for me. While my friend’s story brought out an extreme (and it turns out, entirely unnecessary) reaction from me, the truth is that every time I’m on Facebook the stories in my feed do the exact same thing in smaller, but sustained doses. Hearing of natural disasters, human tragedies, human cruelty, reading about friends enduring racial microaggressions, or arguing with vitriol-spewing racists, can make my heart race, give me a surge of adrenaline, agitate me, aggrieve me, enrage me, and often leave me feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.

When I first started learning how to live with PTSD, one of the most important steps was learning how to avoid unnecessary triggers. And for me, using Facebook to stay current means I’m being triggered in small ways, all the time.

Since then I’ve dramatically curtailed my time on Facebook. Most importantly, I’ve realized I need to get my news a different way. I’m pretty much done with mainstream media: even Rachel Maddow and NPR disappointed me with their biased and inadequate coverage of Bernie Sanders during the primaries. Sites that gather together news stories for us on our computers or smart phones – like Yahoo News, Google Now or the news app on Windows 10 – only allow us to customize within parameters they’ve set. I’m not fooled, ultimately they are still controlling the narrative I get.

PC Magazine has rated RSS feed readers, which allow you to pick and choose websites (could be news sites, blogs, even videos) to feed into one place. I’m trying out several, both on my computer and smart phone. My feeds include independent news sources as well as the websites and blog sites of people whose perspectives are as essential as they are absent from mainstream news. When social justice women of color like Michelle Alexander, Patrisse Cullors, Ijeoma Oluo, or Awesomely Luvvie write, I know about it. (I believe it is precisely the intersections of oppression that enable women of color to see all around the events of the day and analyze them with an intersection of awareness, empathy, and cohesiveness.)

I take into 2017 far greater insights and intentionality about the ways that I use Facebook, as well as taking steps to ensure that I am not spoon fed the narrative manufactured by mainstream media.

What more could I want, with such enormous insights to guide me into the new year? Heated slippers. I have one pair that plugs into my computer and keeps my feet toasty warm, all the way down to my toes, when I’m sitting at my computer. A second pair is very soft; the bottoms are filled with grains that warm up in the microwave. This pair is heated at bedtime and sends me off to slumber with warm feet.

I have no idea why it took me so many years to pay attention to my frigid toes, or to decide to do something about it. But for anyone who has endured cold feet stoically, the sense of overall contentment that comes from feet warmed through is indescribable and life changing. You all, like me, should head into 2017 with heated slippers – or something that is your equivalent.

The insights I gained in 2016 will enable me to make peace with some very old struggles. I am learning to tune into myself, what I need, and what I deserve –from my heart, down to the tips of my toes. And I feel confident that I will not repeat any of the old patterns that I have figured out and lay to rest here in 2016.

I am bringing into 2017 a new awareness of the people, places and things that wear me down emotionally and physically, and with strategies for choosing where and with whom I put my time and attention. And no less important, I am bringing into 2017 ten toasty warm toes.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Quiet Strength

You must learn to be still in the midst of activity
and to be vibrantly alive in repose.
~ Indira Ghandi

I am a strong person. A strong woman. I have an iron will and determination. A focus and tenacity that will not quit.

My first boss after I became a park ranger compared me to a wolverine, a creature that once it clamps its jaws on its prey will not release them even into death. He would joke about the unsuspecting people who would underestimate my relentlessness nature.

When duty calls, I answer. I can carry the world on my shoulders. When a task is daunting, I bend myself to the task. And when the task requires me to take control, step up, speak out, I do, although being visible in this way is especially uncomfortable.

You see, my strength is a quiet strength.

And while I have always had an inner will and determination, and it has taken years to develop the ability to project that strength out into the world, I am still by nature a quiet and introspective person.

We have a dear family friend Charlotte who’s long been one of my biggest fans. She interpreted my behavior when I was a toddler as quietly observing and assessing my world and those in it. 

I don’t speak for the sake of hearing my own voice, or for the sake of being heard. I don’t insert myself into a space to make sure others notice me. I don’t make waves because I can. I am not loud by nature: I reserve that for times of need. In a noisy room I do not speak up just to be heard; but I will speak up when I need to say something. And when I need to say something I wait for an opening rather than cutting people off. I neither need, nor want to demonstrate my strength. I get no satisfaction in throwing my weight around.

But in a world where grandiosity, noise and boasting are celebrated, strong, quiet people like me are routinely overlooked. We are sized up and determined weak, insignificant, inconsequential, unthreatening.

Some people of course see who I am; undoubtedly they are generally more perceptive, or perhaps share traits like mine, or maybe know someone like me. They know that strength does not only present itself in loud, boastful packages.

But those others? If there ever comes a time when I assert myself, it almost always is unpleasant. I don’t know what their perceptions are, but after a lifetime of experience I have a few ideas:

      ·      Because they are loud and outspoken and I am not, they believe I am weaker,
      ·      They believe that they have the upper hand in our relationship,
      ·      If I do speak out or push back it completely confounds and angers them,
      ·      They respond by rejecting or attacking me.

This has definitely happened in working relationships. And in a capitalist society, most companies are built on a hierarchy that rewards self-aggrandizement and puts those people at the top.

Living in a patriarchal world, the assumption is that men are stronger than women. Generally speaking, if women do not demonstrate their strength loudly and boldly, that assumption stands. So in a male-dominated culture, most men do not notice my strength.

Unfortunately, too many women friends have followed this pattern.

I have always been drawn to women who are bold and outspoken. I love what I perceive as a rejection of patriarchy and the embrace of feminine power. I’ve always looked up to their fearlessness, the way they speak their minds without worrying about ruffling feathers – something that I definitely struggle with. I am fascinated by them, and curious to know how they grew beyond the bounds of gender roles.

But within these friendships, the same dynamic has usually happened: while I perceived that we were on equal footing, my more outspoken friends have often thought they had the upper hand. I did not believe I was giving them the power by giving them the floor, but they assumed I was.

A true friendship requires give and take, compromise, and a willingness to talk through conflicts. But many of my friendships with outspoken women only lasted until that time that I pushed back: at which time I was met with confusion and anger, followed by complete rejection.

For a long time, especially in the work environment, I experimented with how I presented myself: trying to project a stronger image initially; trying to soften my pushback if that need arose. In all honesty, all of my efforts and considerable internal angst reaped zero rewards.

And in seeing a similar pattern emerge among friendships, a deeper truth has dawned on me. I need to stand firmly in who I am, and learn to accept the consequences of living my truth. People who only see strength in loudness will underestimate me, and I need to accept that. Those same people will be angry when I stand up to them, and I need to accept that as well. Other people, those who are more perceptive of the variances of personality types, will see who I am. We will continue to get along well.

There is nothing in me that I need to fix. Become more authentic? Sure. Tell the truth faster? Always room for that. But there is nothing wrong with being quiet. And there is definitely nothing wrong with being strong. These things are a part of me. The world does not need to accept me. I need to accept myself.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Never Give Up

Content Warning: dream of armed robbery, contemplating being killed

In the days right after the election, I channeled my emotions into strategies. Disseminating information about ICE. Strategies for intervening if you witness harassment. The ACLU’s apps for recording hate crimes. I bypassed the anger and grief, and went directly to problem-solving.

Knowing one of my nieces might join the post-election protests, my dad expressed concern along with the suggestion that she make sure she feels good about the people she protests with (if she does protest), and I think the subtext was his hope that she would choose not to protest for her own safety.

Hate crimes have already spiked across the country. Racism was already rampant; people of color knew this, it is only us white folks who are opening our eyes to it. But by electing Trump, the country has given marginalized folks the message that their lives, their safety, is not important. Trump has glamorized racist rhetoric. And bigots are feeling encouraged by this victory of white nationalism. It isn’t news to people of color and all marginalized people that this country is unsafe. As I think of my white niece protesting, or myself committing to intervene if I see bullying or intimidation, it is clear that things are also not safe for those who would stand up against racists. And as much as we may try to control things, as we head into this new era (not newly racist, but newly proud and out white nationalism), safety is simply an illusion for all of us.

Three days ago my migraine hit. It’s been a doozy. I’ve spent most of the past three days in bed, in and out of sleep. During migraines, my subconscious has free range, and combined with being in pain and feeling useless, thoughts of hopelessness and despair can storm the barricades.

I had the strangest dream, and it was so real…

I was house sitting in a lovely home when there was an armed robbery. It was a professional job, we surprised each other, and I saw all their faces. I couldn’t believe it when I realized this meant they intended to kill me. I implored the person in charge of the robbery, a beefy white guy with big rings, sitting in a comfy overstuffed chair while several athletic women started to take the items they’d previously inventoried and prioritized.

I told him it wasn’t my time to die yet; I had a lot of living yet to do. I told him about my son, an adult, with whom I was so close. I realized that while I had a sadness about my own life being cut short, what really upset me was thinking about my family having to go through this. In a rush I described the struggles my son has endured, including surviving cancer. I told the man that my son’s wife recently lost her brother, and has also lost her father. I told him that my family has been through far too much and lost so many people; they can’t lose yet another person.

I was in fact pleading for my life, but for them. I took note of that, filed it away.

He told me that it was unfortunate, but what else could he do.

Two of the women took me out of the house to an alley. I repeated myself, made sure they knew as much as possible about me, and that my death would impact other people. They were professional; going about their business, listening with dispassionate interest. One woman offered that they might be able to find a random stranger to take my place, to be the one to die instead of me (presumably to convince the boss they’d done their job). She said sometimes that was done.

The thought of a random person dying so that I could live was abhorrent to me. I felt sickened. I answered emphatically, “no.”

I asked if there was anything I could do. Shrugs.

A van pulled up and despite the risk with guns pointed at me, I called out for help. It was in that moment that I realized I was not going to go quietly, but that I would wait and watch for any opportunity to escape. But the van was theirs, and they loaded me onto the top.

We drove off and I saw the stars above. There was the Big Dipper. I swear, the the stars had never been so bright before. I wondered if this would be my last time looking at the sky, and wished I had not taken it for granted. Its beauty made me weep.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

White Supremacy

I’ve been very deliberate today about what election-related news and commentary I’m allowing in. It’s a hard day to be an empath.

53% of white women voted for Trump, compared to only 43% for Hillary Clinton. White men and women combined voted 58% for Trump, 37% for Clinton. Bottom line, white supremacy won last night. And while most of us were taken by surprise by Trump’s victory, we shouldn’t be surprised by the prevalence of white supremacy in this country.

Ian Frank Gallery
Innocent Black men, women and children are executed in the streets, captured on film, and white people still justify it. And time after time those officers are not held accountable by our criminal justice system.

A group of white militants staged an armed take-over of a federal facility, some crossing state boundaries to organize the occupation, destroying property and sacred artifacts, and all were released without convictions.

Treaties and federal laws have been ignored by the government so a company can build an environment-threatening pipeline; security and police with military gear have used dogs, rubber bullets and pepper spray to attack Indigenous people trying to protect their own land. They have been arresting reporters and peaceful protesters alike, and systematically conducting strip searches.

Hate crimes against Muslims have escalated since 9-11. Domestic terrorism is overwhelmingly caused by white Christian extremists. And yet the media continues to manipulate the stories by describing the white terrorists as “troubled,” and “lone gunmen.” Meanwhile all Muslims, who in fact comprise nearly ¼ of the world’s population, are judged as terrorists. And black victims are criminalized even after they have been murdered.

In subtler, but no less dangerous ways white supremacy dictates the life choices of people of color. Since public schools are funded by property taxes, and since white people are the only ones who benefited from robbing land from indigenous people, then making profit off that land by the slave labor of black people, white communities are the ones that can afford good schools; meanwhile Black neighborhoods, Latino neighborhoods, and many schools on reservations have crumbling infrastructure and molding books.

The school-to-prison pipeline ensures that the majority of black men are not available to help raise their children, help support their families, and help bring their communities out of poverty. In prison they actually become more indebted, because the privatization of prisons allows for inmates to be charged outrageous fees for their “room and board.” Once released and rehabilitated, felons are never again allowed to vote, furthering the control of white people over black. The list goes on and on.
Ian Frank Gallery

So, we shouldn’t be surprised by the prevalence of white supremacy. It is rampant and insidious. It was built into the very foundation of this country. How else do you explain these injustices which go on every day, day in day out, for years, with white people not rising up and demanding justice for our brothers and sisters? How else do you explain the continuation of racial injustices that have occurred under Obama’s presidency?

We may have all been surprised last night. But now in the light of day it makes complete sense to me. Now I understand why white people have been allowing blatant racism to go unchecked. It’s all good, as long as we get our own, right?

As for me, now that the election is over I can resume my role in fighting to dismantle white supremacy. Some progressive friends are already planning to run for office. Not the Hillary variety of progressive; the Bernie variety of progressive - but even more intersectional. And I will be helping them.

The Political Revolution is underway.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Our Experiences and Feelings

One time I had a really awful supervisor. Now, I’ve had a few really awful supervisors. I don’t know if this guy was the worst, but he was definitely in the top three. (Fortunately, I have also had some absolutely wonderful supervisors.)

The year that I spent in this position, however, was hands down my worst. I had an employee who was resentful that I was hired into the position rather than her being promoted (even though she wasn’t qualified). Despite my concerted efforts to work collaboratively with her, she had other plans. How did she express her resentment? By cleverly sabotaging my work so that things fell apart when she was not on shift and I was. And by spreading horrendous stories about me to other employees both at our location and others. She was very compelling, very believable. Her campaign against me was relentless. And some of her stories about me were quite offensive and extraordinarily, personal hurtful.

So in addition to her sour attitude and vigorous campaign of sabotage, my other employees challenged my authority, and coworkers constantly gave me the side-eye, cold shoulder or worse because they kept hearing awful stories about me.

The boss – my supervisor’s supervisor – was “retired on the job” in the worst way possible. He had no clue what was going on, but would periodically pop up and bark out orders, send people scrambling, and chastise. Lines between work and personal were ignored, and I would be chastised for taking a rare sick day, or probed about my personal life.

Back to my supervisor. He’d lived a sheltered life, and relied on a very rigid and archaic work model. Our schedules only overlapped a few hours each week, so we communicated via notes we left for each other. He jerked me around on a regular basis (dispatching directives via notes), and if I asked for discussion or help in prioritizing or told him I was struggling with covering both the morning AND night shifts on Wednesdays and Thursdays, he would chastise me for whining and/or insubordination.

Add to this that my job was high responsibility, very high stakes, and high stress. Every day as got ready for work, I took a few breaths and sent out a wish that I would rise to any challenge that would come my way – knowing that it could quite literally be life or death.

This was certainly one of the worst years of my life, and the horrific nature of the job situation completely consumed and ruined my personal life.

When I approached my breaking point I carefully crafted a measured, diplomatic letter to my supervisor. I made it as clear and concise as possible. I let him know that I was feeling overwhelmed and on the verge of burning out. I summarized the circumstances of my job that made me feel that way (for example my employee’s campaign of sabotage, of which he was well aware) and suggested some solutions that might reduce my overwhelm.

In response, I got a lengthy letter that said something like, “what if those things aren’t true,” then systematically debunked all the things I had listed as being circumstances leading me to feel overwhelmed.

What if it isn’t true? That I’m not feeling overwhelmed? That I’m not going to burn out?

I felt like I was in the twilight zone.

He wanted to debate with me. NO, he wanted to tell me I was wrong, for feeling the way I felt. He seemed to think that he could argue why I did not feel the way I did. Not should not feel; did not feel.

Dear Reader, I have tried to paint a picture of how stressful my situation was so that you would believe me when I said I was overwhelmed and approaching burnout. But what if I started this post by simply stating that I had an impossible and stressful job situation, and was overwhelmed and approaching burnout?

Would you still sympathize with me? Would you question me? What would impact your decision whether or not to believe me? And when I say believe me I want to be clear: believe that this was my experience and that these were my feelings about it.

If you never had an experience like this at work, would you be skeptical? If you have more of an assertive personality, or a presence that compels people to take you seriously, and personally can’t relate to this experience, would you be skeptical of my experience?

If I was still working at this job and suffering and you were my friend, would my pain make you so uncomfortable that you would want me to “look at it differently,” “change my attitude,” or “interpret my supervisor’s behavior differently,” rather than you accepting that things were really this awful?

Not only did my supervisor invalidate my feelings, well-intentioned friends and family invalidated my experience of what was happening. And that made it worse because, on top of a horrific job situation, I felt like no one believed me or how bad it was.

Have you ever expressed your feelings, or shared your experience of something, and been hurt, confused or infuriated when someone told you that you were wrong?

As a society, we have developed some bad habits. Instead of cultivating compassion and validating others’ feelings and experiences, we question or even invalidate them.

Other people don’t get to tell us that our experiences are wrong; they don’t get to interpret our experiences. Neither do they get to invalidate our feelings. We are the only ones who know what we experience, know what we feel.

So when Black Americans share their experience of being Black; about how there are two different Americas; that while progress has been made, being Black is still a life sentence, we do not get to question that. When Black folks say that they are systematically being killed for the crime of being Black, they are expressing their experience.

White people cannot know what it is like growing up Black in the U.S. What we can do is listen and try to understand. And cultivate compassion. That’s a start.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Living Like Every Day Is Your Last

A woman is going about her life. She believes what she was told about making goals and plans for her future. She allowed herself an appropriate number of years to be carefree before getting tied down. Then she started to get serious about a career. Started making more responsible choices which would pave the way to starting a family, buying a home, upgrading that home, and eventually retiring with a comfortable safety net.

But somewhere in there she gets lost. She’s on the treadmill and maybe she knows it and hates it; or maybe she isn’t really aware of it, just has this sense of malaise; or perhaps she struggles with depression.

Then something shocks her to the core: Death. Someone very close to her, maybe even her. Someone in her family dies. Or she almost dies. Suddenly, all of her carefully laid plans are in ruins. More than that, she realizes that all of her meticulous efforts at creating an ordered life can be obliterated in a heartbeat.

Her entire Life, her entire perception of Life, is shaken apart. For days, weeks, months, she feels uprooted. Her plan clearly isn’t going to help her anymore. So now what?

It is common after such an awakening to reevaluate our priorities. And for many people we realize that our jobs, our retirement funds, pleasing others at our expense, and consistently punching the clock every day are not the things that create a fulfilling Life.

We promise ourselves to slow down, to spend more time with the people we love, to tell them we love them more, to stop and smell the roses. We worry less about pleasing our boss; we worry less about pleasing others in general. Many completely overhaul their lives leaving jobs, relationships, and homes that no longer serve them and bring them fulfillment; situations that they stayed in out of fear or habit.

They are spurred on by a sense of urgency, a desire to spend every day as if it’s their last and not waste it on something demeaning, demoralizing, or just plain unchallenging, because in truth every day may be our last.

This is a common theme. I’ve experienced variations of it myself, as has my extended family. My son’s cancer diagnosis a few years ago, and my young niece dying from cancer three years ago, continue to have reverberations.

The changes to my life were certainly more pronounced initially, and are probably not very obvious to an outsider. But I am far more aware of my heart connection to my son, his wife, and my nieces and nephews. I don’t reach out to them with messages of love as often as I did initially, but their wellbeing is more important to me now than ever. And I want to make sure that they know of my unconditional love for them.

My changes were not in any way exuberant or about chasing stifled dreams. I’d already been doing that – because I had my son at an early age, as soon as he finished school I struck out to explore and challenge myself. But also, when I got the news about my son’s cancer I was in the midst of the most debilitating time of my PTSD. I already knew that I needed to find a new way to earn an income after leaving my career as a park ranger, knew that I wanting to be near my son and be a part of his life – and – changes in my life happened very, very slowly.

It makes sense that after realizing death could derail our plans, or take us at any time, we might reprioritize our lives and even feel reinvigorated as we pursue things we hadn’t dared to pursue before.

But here is what I’m most curious about: what happens over time? I would guess that for most people, this reprioritization and reinvigorated lifestyle isn’t sustainable. Financially for one, but also that level of energy, uncertainty, and risk-taking can be exhausting and stressful. I wonder how hard it is, for many, to maintain that sense of living life as if every day is their last.

So for these people who have looked Death in the face, what do their lives look like in six months? One year? Two? Five? Ten? Twenty?

How many do in fact maintain a complete restructuring of their lives, based on this realization that their priorities were not fulfilling? How many unconsciously start settling back into old habits? How many actually fall into a depression, straddling this new knowledge, but uncertain what to do with it or how to go about redesigning their lives?

As I mentioned, my shock happened in the midst of a mental health crisis. It did not in any way diminish the shock, but it did slow down my ability to reorder my life. I wanted to immediately move to where my son was, to be near him. It took nearly two years before I was emotionally and financially able to do so.

Since then, and as a result of my deliberate reprioritizing, I have been living in a travel trailer which significantly decreases my cost of living while increasing my mobility. While living in trailer parks can be inhibiting especially with pets, living in a trailer has overall been beneficial. My home environment is cheerful and cozy, my lower cost of living gives me more flexibility, and I have peace of mind knowing I could easily pack up and move if necessary.

I’ve been finding ways to make an income; getting familiar with what does and doesn’t work with my new needs and priorities has been a long and slow (and lean) process, but the rewards are starting to pay off. For someone who really understands that tomorrow is not guaranteed, I don’t spend enough time outside, in nature, walking or stretching. I worry and obsess too much. Even though we live in the same town, I don’t visit my son as often as I’d like, or my other extended family.

But in some extraordinary ways, I’ve redesigned my life to make all of those choices more accessible. And part of my process is learning to do things at my own pace. While it may not appear from the outside that much is going on, a lot of important work is happening both internally and externally.

With slow small steps, every day, I free up more of myself to connect with Life.

And you?

Monday, January 11, 2016


Content Warning: minimal use of anatomical slang.

This post is about me. Me and my story.

That may seem obvious, but I want to state this clearly. Because in this post I use examples that involve other people. It may be tempting to try to interpret their role, or question my interpretation, but that would miss the point. The point is, the anecdote is presented in order to provide a framework for my thoughts, my process, my story.

I was raised as a typical girl: by that I mean I was raised to be courteous and polite, particularly to authority figures and most of all to men; to respond to male anger with gentleness and coaxing; to shrink with shame in the face of another’s anger and blame; to accept their reality over my own.

I slowly learned to reclaim my own reality first through words on paper; much more slowly by using my voice. I still struggle to stand up for myself. Humility is far more comfortable. Easier to advocate for a friend; more willing to stick out my neck for others who are oppressed.

I am less comfortable speaking up for myself, or for those with whom I am oppressed – women and the LGBTQ+ community.

I am more comfortable advocating for others than for myself.

Being a student of social justice and all its intersectionalities among race, sex, gender, religion and more, I find myself confused at times by when to stand up in protest, and when to take a seat. I have seen this dilemma played out countless times with other social justice advocates.

In this dilemma, my predisposition for humility is both strength and weakness.

When anguish erupted in the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore, I started seeking out and listening to voices of Black United Statesians. I realized that my white upbringing – despite liberal parents, extensive travel, and a de-segregated high school – prevented me from comprehending the extraordinarily different experience it is for Black people living in this country; how extraordinarily different this country is for Black people.

For any of us, there is only one way to bridge this gap in understanding: to continuously push aside our preconceptions, and listen to as many personal stories from Black people about their experiences of living in the U.S. My humility served me well in helping to recognize that my own experiences and opinions only impede my understanding. My humility served me well in that I don’t have to wrestle with my Ego as much as some do to put aside my beliefs in order to learn about others’ realities.

This same process – put aside my preconceptions, experiences, and opinions, and start listening to others’ experiences – applies to any marginalized group: folks from the Middle East, Muslims, people with physical or mental disabilities, those who are poor, the homeless, the mentally ill, people who are obese, people who are elderly, Latino and Hispanic people, Native Americans, immigrants, women, lesbians and gays, or trans men and women.

Admittedly, it has been easier to set aside my preconceptions with some groups than with others. I struggle to put aside strongly held views that perhaps developed over a lifetime, but I believe fervently that I can only learn about others’ experience from them.

A side “benefit” of this process is that my defensiveness has diminished. Jokes or accusations about white people no longer offend. Depending on the context I appreciate the humor, reflect on the sad truth, or turn my attention inward to search out any bigotry hiding inside me. The path is continuous, the process the same, repeated over and over.

But here is where it gets complicated. What if someone from a marginalized group offends another marginalized group? What if they offend my marginalized group? I know I am not the only person who feels cautious and torn by this conundrum.

Here my humility, my training to appease and placate, does not serve me well. I hesitate for far too long before accepting that I need to stand up for those I am oppressed with, before realizing that I get to stand up for myself too.

A few years ago I helped start a local group fighting for marriage equality (same-sex marriage). Was I motivated by the dream of legalizing wedding cakes and aisles lined with flowers? Not really. Same-sex couples have always had ceremonies with cakes and flowers. But marriage rights for same-sex couples is serious business, and brings with it real life consequences. Without it, a spouse is not guaranteed the right to make medical decisions about their partner in the hospital, may even be denied the right to see them. Without it, a spouse cannot visit their partner in jail. Without it, children are vulnerable to either kidnapping or abandonment, as no law binds one of the parents. Whether children of gay parents or children who are gay, a country that does not allow marriage for same-sex couples is stating that being gay is an abomination. And in far greater numbers than their straight counterparts, LGBTQ youth suicide rather than stay in a world that believes they are abominations.

Two things happened on the day that same-sex marriage was declared the law of the land by the Supreme Court. The first was that my Facebook feed became an explosion of rainbows. (While some in the LGBTQ community felt differently, I loved being embraced by my straight brothers and sisters from around the world in a blanket of rainbows.)

The second thing, on that very day, was a backlash from a small number of social justice activists. Some said that while same sex marriage was pretty and happy and acceptable, what about the suicides and murders of trans men and women? Others said, who cares about something as frivolous as marriage, when Brown and Black bodies are still being murdered?

I kept silent, but this angered me. Same sex marriage wasn’t all pretty. It was also about life and death. And it had been a long fight over the course of many years, all across the country. This success in no way invalidated tragedies befalling the trans community, in no way invalidated the horrors committed against people of color. The comparison, the suggestion that the one took away from the other, was false. And the suggestion that this victory was trivial, inconsequential, and a distraction, hurt.

My outrage at the atrocities committed against LGBTQ people is justified. My joy at this victory, both tangible and symbolic, is justified and deserved. Trivializing its importance invalidated the real struggles of marginalized people. I wish I had spoken up that day.

So now I remind you that what follows is my story; especially for those who know personally about this situation.

Recently a social justice friend posted on Facebook. One of her friends as part of his response included an offensive description of female genitals, along the lines of, “Icky Tw@t.”

A part of me wanted to scroll on by. Several people had “liked” this comment, and no one had called out his offensive phrase. His profile pic was not of a person; the name was male. Other than that I knew nothing about him, did not know his race, his sexual orientation. A struggle ensued in my head and gut. This was shaky ground, no doubt.

Someone making an offensive racist comment? Easy to decide how to respond. A person of unknown race making a misogynistic comment? This ground felt less certain.

At the same time, I felt something build and well up inside me. Yes I’m white. I benefit every day from white privilege, white supremacy, from a country built on the backs of Black and Brown people. And I get to be offended by misogyny. It harms me. It harms women I know, women I care about, all women.

No one should get a pass for being misogynistic.

I started with a gentle comment, “tw@ts are not icky.”

He responded with something like, “maybe not to you.”

Based on that response, I wondered if he was gay. And again thoughts ran through my head. And again I came to the same conclusion, or rather, a feeling welled up from inside me: No one gets a pass for being misogynistic.

Our exchange escalated instantly, he became aggressive and swore at me, I in turn called him a misogynist. He clearly was not open to hearing that a woman took offense to women’s genitalia being described in a dirty, derogatory, and objectifying manner. I blocked him.

Later that day I found that my friend, on whose post this all occurred, had unfriended me. I was hurt and confused. All I had done was call attention to, and then call out, misogyny.

When she and I interacted about it, she presented a different perspective. What struck me most was her protectiveness of her friend who had made these comments. She was very angry with me and I thought at length about my choices. In the end, I decided that to not call out his misogyny felt like having to take it. With that thought my chest tightened, and I knew that could not have been the right choice for me.

Learning about the depths of oppression experienced by marginalized people is a lifelong process; I will always be a student. As such, it makes sense for me to listen, learn, and amplify those stories – rather than trying to raise my voice over theirs.

But what about those times that it is my voice, my marginalized voice as a woman, as a lesbian, that needs to be amplified? And what about those times that I need to raise my voice over theirs?

I am certain that any time I raise my voice as one oppressed person over another, I will make waves and lose friends. I doubt there is a solution that would be agreeable to everyone, in this convoluted system that thrives on pitting the marginalized against one another. What I will try to remember is that it is not about convincing others that I’m right. It’s about continuing to search my heart, and learning what is right for me to do.

Social justice work is exhausting. Always there is a barrage of blatant bigotry. Always there is a barrage of well-meaning liberal white privilege and defensiveness. Often among activists, good intentions end up being harmful. And sometimes any choice is fraught with harm.

And yet all there is to do is continue to listen, learn, and amplify. And maybe on occasion, to speak up.