Friday, May 25, 2018

Knowing Tomorrow isn’t Promised

Trigger Warning: discussion of children dying, loss and grief, cancer, suicide, nightmares, and strong emotions.

Last night I had a dream – or maybe it was a nightmare.

The Grieving Parents, Käthe Kollwitz
First, the backstory (real awake life). I have two friends who in recent months lost their young adult child: one to cancer, the other to suicide. Add them to the growing list of people I care about who have lost a child.

It is a tragedy I cannot imagine, although there have been times I’ve feared it. To nurture someone, to invest your entire being in someone, to see them grow and develop into their own person, to feel your love and pride grow, only to have them snatched away, must be one of the most horrible things that can happen.

I have seen parents eventually find peace, and I have seen parents whose lives are completely destroyed by the loss.

It is so hard to know what to say, because there is nothing to be said. Platitudes would be callous and hurtful. I want to offer reassurances, but I can’t promise anything. I want to say something that will make them feel better, if only momentarily, but how could any words make someone feel better when they’ve just lost their child? I settle on expressing concern and compassion, and validation for their pain, because I do want them to know that I care.

Two nights ago I had a brief exchange on Facebook Messenger with one of these friends. It wasn’t at all related to the loss of his child. It was past my bedtime and my brain was already falling asleep. I didn’t want to end the exchange without somehow acknowledging his loss, this profound change in his world, but I couldn’t find the words. Rather than risk writing something that would be unhelpful, I didn’t address it and went to sleep.

So now the nightmare…

I found out that my friend, the other parent who’d lost his child, had just died of suicide. I was distraught, sobbing uncontrollably. I feverishly read through Facebook posts to try to better understand what had transpired. I couldn’t help but think of our recent exchange (in real life it was the other friend I’d had that exchange with – but in the dream, both friends had become one person), and how I had failed to express my regret or compassion or love.

I was horrified to realize that now I would never have the chance to tell him. A part of me wondered if a kind word at that time, instead of going to sleep, might have made the smallest of differences, a hand reaching through the darkness at the right time, enough to keep him from ending his life.

I was inconsolable.

In the dream, all of the people who had information about my friend’s death, who’d spent time with him in recent days and weeks, gathered in a house. I was desperate for answers. Then somehow, one of the people revealed that my friend had not in fact died – his attempt had failed. He was in the hospital recovering.

I was so relieved, and at the same time furious that this person had led so many of us to believe that our friend had died. I remember yelling at him. I was angry at him, angry at everyone. And crying, I couldn’t stop crying.

I woke up a bit, but then drifted back into the nightmare – several times. I was overwhelmed by my strong emotions. Finally, I roused myself enough to get out of bed and walk around a bit, so that I could leave that awful dream behind.

Käthe Kollwitz
Clearly, I hadn’t felt right about going to sleep without expressing my compassion to my friend during our exchange. And once asleep, my brain realized that since tomorrow is never promised, I might not ever have the opportunity. And that it would be incredibly painful to live with my regret, were that to happen.

I don’t believe in prophetic dreams. And during the time in my life when I did, it was clearly and repeatedly demonstrated that my dreams were definitely not prophetic. So upon waking, I didn’t have any worries that something had actually happened to either friend. But I did feel like I’d been given a second chance – along with the reminder that second chances are not always given.

I wrote to both friends to let them know I was thinking about them, and was available if they wanted to talk.

I still don’t know what to say. I still know that my words are inadequate, and can’t possibly bring the comfort or relief I wish they could. But I also know that sometimes when we are struggling, having someone reach out to us with love is enough. It doesn’t appease our struggle, but it reminds us that we aren’t completely alone in our darkness.

I am so grateful that I did have a second chance. And I’m grateful for the reminder that we can not hesitate to express our love and compassion to others – we have to act on it immediately, or risk not having the chance to ever again.

Tomorrow isn’t promised. Tell your children you love them. Tell your friends that you care.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Taking a Knee

When the intent of a message is so grossly misrepresented, I waffle between believing that people have been duped, and believing that they know better and are misrepresenting as a smokescreen.

Let’s look at the facts.

This is not a First Amendment issue. The First Amendment only protects people from arrest, it does not guarantee us a blanket right to express ourselves in all situations, including at work, at school, at a business, etc.

Colin Kaepernick stopped standing for the National Anthem to draw attention to police brutality and racially-biased policing. That was his intent. He was standing up for injustice by not standing up. That is the fact.

He wasn’t doing it to disrespect this country or members of the military, nor was he inadvertently disrespecting our military. It was Army Special Forces veteran Nate Boyer who saw Kaepernick sitting on the bench during the Anthem, and suggested instead that he kneel instead.

We sorta came to a middle ground where he would take a knee alongside his teammate. Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect.” – Nate Boyer

So the decision to specifically kneel during the Anthem was to show respect for members of the military while making his protest. His silent, peaceful protest.

This country prides itself on dissent; it was founded on principles of speaking up against injustice; of protests and demonstrations; of taking a stand. Demonstrations, peaceable, destructive, and even violent, were what birthed this nation (think of the Boston Tea Party). So to suggest that his protest was un-American is simply nonfactual.

And to suggest that his protest was anti-military is also nonfactual. Not only did he build in a way to show his respect, active duty military and veterans do not as a group condemn him. In fact, many have spoken out in support of what he did. You will undoubtedly find folks whose opinions on it run the full spectrum from applauding him to vilifying him. And if you have not ever been a member of the military, you (and I) don’t get to speak for them.

I do know however that members of the military do not take an oath to our flag. They take an oath to our Constitution. So it’s a stretch to say that not standing at attention to our flag insults our veterans.

Kaepernick’s protest was to call attention to biased and violent policing. That’s what it was about, full stop. To suggest otherwise is not factual.

To address the actual message of his protest, police brutality and racially biased policing, statistics overwhelmingly bear out that black people are disproportionately impacted by our laws and criminal justice system.

“Mass incarceration has not touched all communities equally… Sentencing policies, implicit racial bias, and socioeconomic inequity contribute to racial disparities at every level of the criminal justice system. Today, people of color make up 37% of the U.S. population but 67% of the prison population. Overall, African Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences. Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men and Hispanic men are more than twice as likely to be incarcerated as non-Hispanic white men.” – The Sentencing Project (

racial disparities [exist]
at every level of the 
criminal justice system

To argue that there isn’t racial bias in policing, or our overall criminal justice system, is not factual. And for those of us who are white, by virtue of different vantage point, we simply cannot speak to the impacts of this on black people. I do not and can not know what it means to grow up in a country that stole and enslaved my ancestors, then went from slavery to Jim Crow and lynchings, to redlining and other systemic racial discrimination, to the staggering impact of the criminal justice system in today’s black families and communities.

Colin Kaepernick was quietly and peacefully saying: stop killing black people.

For those who believe Kaepernick was calling all cops racist, consider this: I was a law enforcement officer. During that time I had no reason to believe that any of the officers I knew engaged in racially biased policing. I felt quite confident that wasn’t the case; or if it was, it was for certain that rare bad apple.

It was the story of Trayvon Martin’s death at the hands of vigilante George Zimmerman that started to change my awareness of this issue. Zimmerman, of course, was not a police officer; but his profiling of Martin, and aggression towards him, seemed racially motivated. But what most caught my attention was the way this story divided the nation. I was completely taken aback that so many people believed Zimmerman was justified, and the lengths they went to trying to portray Martin as the aggressor.

From there I started paying more attention to stories of black people dying at the hands of law enforcement. I started to read more opinions and articles on the issue and worked to better educate myself on the realities to which I’d been mostly oblivious.

It was extremely painful, and took a long time, for me to let go of the belief that it was “only a few bad apples.” I learned about the enduring history of racist policing. Racism is at the very roots of the law enforcement system in this country. Entire departments, cities, and counties have been found guilty of egregious violations against people of color – from planting evidence, to implementing cruel treatment during incarceration, to acting with violence for no other reason than that black people were considered dangerous by virtue of the color of their skin.

I still know a great many ethical, non-racist law enforcement officers. But now I also know the greater context: racism was built into our criminal justice system; it is pervasive, and cannot be eradicated simply by having non-racist cops. Its pervasiveness ensures that it will endure until and unless it is ruthlessly rooted out.

Many, many police officers who believe in serving their communities find themselves having to compromise their values (whether in large ways, or very small) in order to keep their jobs or to entertain hopes of advancing their career. Many, many police officers (just like many, many citizens) cannot help but be influenced by implicit bias – a very deep subconscious bias against people of color, that is the unfortunate birthright of every white person in this country.

Being good cops, not being racist, will not solve the racism that is built into the criminal justice system. Being good people, not being racist, will not solve racism in this country.

What I can do, what you can do, is believe that there is a valid reason for these protests; we can believe those who are directly impacted by it. We can listen to the perspectives of those who are immersed in it. We can pay attention to the news and the alarmingly different ways white and black people are treated both by the criminal justice system and by the media. And we can learn about the statistics that back up claims of racial bias.

The NFL most likely has the right to impose restrictions on kneeling during the National Anthem. But their decision to do so is disappointing and disheartening – and their decision reflects the opinions of the American people.

What hope do we have of eradicating racism if we lose our shit when a football player silently and peacefully brings it to our attention?

self-portrait by Ian Frank,
Disabled United States Marine Corps Veteran

Friday, May 18, 2018

Seeking Comfort

TW: discussion of death and violence.

NOTE: this may be a more disorganized post than usual, but I feel it’s important to write it down, and get it out into the world – out of my head, and onto paper.

I can tell you when, and why, my PTSD really started to take me down.

The damage started with that first fatality when I was a park ranger. But then the damage was compounded by a series of other fatalities that same summer. And further compounded by other seeming impossible dramas and near-tragedies that turned my life upside down – and shattered my conceptions about how the world works.

I never was able to catch my breath. Every day felt like a street fight, for a few years after that one pivotal catalyst. I was lost, and angry, and fearful every day. I hoped that bad things wouldn’t happen on my watch. I hoped that if they did, I would be able to stay present. I hoped that if someone’s life was on the line, my shortcomings would not lead to their death.

I felt like Life kept smacking me down. And every day I had to get up and fight all over again. I had no idea what was going on, or what to do with myself – so I would get up and fight again.

But it wasn’t until I left the park rangering that the PTSD really took hold. Once I no longer had to fight to stay alive, all the fight went out of me.

It became too difficult to fight, too difficult to do more than get by. Sometimes too difficult even to get by. All the anger and angst and fear turned inward, and I collapsed.

Unable to escape the reality that Life COULD be too hard, unable to escape the fact that loss was as inevitable as it was permanent, I lost my incentive to fight. I lost my incentive to risk.

I am armed with too much knowledge of all the things that can turn bad, all the ways events can turn to tragedy. That knowledge pushes me away from risk, and towards safety and comfort.

How many people live out their lives hiding from Life and all that it can take from you? How many of them have been helped by platitudes such as, “it’s better to have loved and lost then to never have loved” – any? How many of the walking wounded have had enough of the pain, and just want a bit of personal peace?

So it becomes about a constant seeking for comfort and safety. Well, safety is only an illusion – so comfort temporarily brings the illusion of safety. In my home. In my bed. If I’m fortunate, in nature. There is no illusion of safety out in the world – women get attacked, children get shot, people die in car accidents. And of course safety at home is also an illusion – you still get the phone call that brings you to your knees, or violence comes into your home. And most certainly the news of sworn enemies killing each other, of neighbors vilifying each other, of a government cheating us and lying to us, makes its way into our living rooms.

Escaping into good fiction, watching children and animals playing. A big slice of chocolate cake, or tall glass of merlot. A soft pillow and the sound of rain. These things bring at least momentary comfort.

The deeper comforts we crave, the kinds that come from being vulnerable and making connections and taking chances, come at too high a cost. Safety is an illusion. So while we know this isn’t how we want to live out our lives, we settle. For the easy, familiar, and guaranteed comforts. No matter how fleeting.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Embracing our Anger

Many of us believe in the importance of becoming our authentic selves; unraveling the layers of societal expectation, dogma, and shame.

I have found though that many who espouse this as a worthwhile effort set conditions on how our authentic selves should behave.

I want to be clear that I have nothing but love and respect for my parents, know them to be loving and generous people, and I most certainly do not blame them for childhood lessons that have followed me into adulthood. Still, we humans are profoundly impacted by our childhood experiences – at home, at school, on the playground, in our neighborhoods. And however we are impacted by those childhood lessons – whether we cater to them, defy them, or learn to disregard them – they helped shape our inner and outer selves.

I was raised to be compliant. As a child I was taught to respect adults, even if they were strangers to me. I was taught that children are not allowed to express anger; in fact they aren’t allowed to feel anger. I was taught that women too are not allowed to express anger. Men can freely express anger; it’s women’s job to soothe the troubled waters.

We really have no reason or excuse ever to make waves. If we want to address a problem, we must do so with patience, finesse, and diplomacy. We respond to their aggression with reason, to their outbursts with gentleness. And we slowly try to make them change by finding the perfect words, the perfect approach, and the right time.

I worshiped at the altar of perfecting my oratory skills. Well into adulthood I believed that if I could find just the right words and put them together in just the right way, and of course deliver them in a non-judgment, non-forceful way, then I would be understood. When this was not the result, I simply worked harder on my skills of debate and presentation. I could fix this. I could fix it given the right words.

Throughout my life this approach has been met with approval: from family, strangers, our culture at large. It is my responsibility to make people understand. Especially if they are men, they cannot be expected to be particularly sensitive or reflective or collaborative. It is my role to ease them into understanding, and I will never be successful at that unless I am calm and gentle.

My first recollection of channeling my angry side was during my time as a park ranger. It is difficult for most people to imagine a supposedly bucolic profession as being one big stimulant to the angry part of the brain. But that was what it was for me. The bread and butter of the job was telling people to stop doing what they were doing: put your dog on a leash; use the toilets, not the trees; stop pulling branches off of live trees; pick up your trash; stop being so loud when the rest of the campground is trying to sleep; don’t throw apples at the deer; and definitely don’t drive into a herd of elk to get a good closeup. Every other aspect of the job was fit into the spaces of time between being professional killjoy.

Combined with the role of being professional killjoy was the impossible position of being a women enforcement officer. If my approach was anywhere from 0 to 8, I was ignored. Once I escalated to 9, I was reported for being too stern. It wasn’t just the park visitors, but my bosses telling me simultaneously to be more stern, and not so stern. There was no sweet spot.

And the ways that people developed to destroy these precious bits of natural space, single-minded and oblivious, kept the angry centers of my brain constantly provoked.

Being angry all the time most certainly did not feel good, nor did expressing my anger. Still, I knew that something important was stirring inside me.

After I left rangering for good, I realized that I still had a lot of anger. Anger about childhood events; anger about my early adulthood; anger about the events of my ranger days; and anger about current situations. All my life I had “taken the high road.” I had done it because I was taught that was a superior response, and because women don’t express anger, and because I was afraid of the repercussions if I responded with anger. Sometimes that fear was of physical repercussions, but mostly it was fear of disapproval.

When I looked back on the oh-so-many times that I had responded with quiet respect to been wronged, I did not feel accomplished. Even years or decades later, I felt like the person had really deserved a good scolding or telling off. I regretted letting them get away with it; I regretted not telling them the things they deserved to hear; I regretted keeping all that anger inside and turning it against myself.

I was angry. And it was justifiable, righteous anger. I wanted to be acknowledged for, supported for, my anger.

I wasn’t.

When I would talk with a friend about someone who was bossing me around or belittling me, I would share my desire to call out that person on their misbehavior. The friend would respond by asking what my goal was. But they already imagined they knew. Surely my goal was to get this person to come around to my way of thinking, and change their behavior. And if I approached them with anger, that would never happen. So what approach could I take that would be more likely to get the result I wanted?

It took a while, but finally I realized that my goals had changed. Sometimes, my goal wasn’t to change the other person or their behavior at all. Sometimes, my goal was to be true to myself; to honor my anger. Sometimes, saying my piece was far more important than anything that might happen as a result.

We live in a capitalist, patriarchal society. Men belittle women. White people belittle people of color. Bosses belittle workers. I knew full well that speaking my truth angrily to a boss would not get me a promotion. But if that boss was a manipulative gaslighter, the only choice that honored me and my struggles was to tell them.

Those of us who call out misbehavior know that we are often criticized more than the one misbehaving. Many types of misbehavior are simply accepted, because they are part of the system, part of how the world is. And if I choose to challenge the system loudly, even those who would change it (quietly) feel threatened.

Overall I’m a very patient person. I’m respectful and diplomatic. Soft-spoken and even cautious. I have to watch against being too modest and self-deprecating. And when I speak out, I rarely do so with a raised voice. But I do so with a steely determination and brutal honestly that definitely gets across.

I have lost jobs. I’ve lost friends. I’ve lost opportunities. And in some cases I’ve been sad about this. But I do not have regrets about finding my anger, and putting voice to it. By honoring my anger, I honor the parts of me that were the most forcefully suppressed. I honor all of me.

I am angry. I am an angry woman.