Not Nothing

Somehow, I’ve found myself teaching a writing class to a handful of 9 and 10 year olds.

That’s weird in and of itself. I typically regard groups of kids the way I might regard, say, a murder of crows. Beautiful, but best to keep one’s distance.

I’m easily overwhelmed by the chaos, caw-CAWing, and furious flapping of wings.

Their unpredictability (groups of kids & crows) unnerves me. And my patience doesn’t near approach even backsliding saint level.

But, earlier this summer, I was clearly possessed by a benign, somewhat random spirit because I floated this idea for a summer writing camp. We could chalk the whole idea up to the fact that the bookstore needed an additional revenue stream. But, truthfully, it doesn’t feel that simple.

Deep down, way deep in my subconscious, I think I’m being pulled toward being the kind of adult that I needed in my world as a kid. One that would’ve encouraged my pull toward writing, pushed me to share and open up. I needed an adult to celebrate my creativity in all its quirkiness and to push me to color outside the lines. Hell, what I really needed was an adult to show me that you could obliterate the damn lines.

Before we started the writing class this week, it was a check box on my To-Do list. I wasn’t sure I’d be any good at teaching/facilitating a group of kids at all. But something happened to me when I saw their little faces pop up on my screen (it’s all virtual because it’s still all pandemic-y out there).

I saw them.

In all their weird, kid glory.

And it clicked for me, deep in my soul somewhere quiet and a little bit sacred, that what I also needed as a kid was other kids who would let me fly my weirdo flag without judgement. I needed a place to nerd out where I felt safe and valued.

Like magic, the murder of crows in my head flapped off in a flurry of feathers. And I was just left with these kids. Wide-open, quirky, sweet kids.

And seeing them made room for all my excitement about their stories–hell, about them in general–to come rushing out. It’s like someone rubbed off the dust of their kid coping mechanisms (muting the other kids, shrugging their shoulders, mumbling “I dunno…”) and let me see all their internal kid stuff that makes them pull back and want to close down.

Instead of becoming one giant sigh of exasperation, I suddenly find myself redirecting without any judgement. Because I see what their doing–and what they’re trying to hide from–so clearly. And I get it. But I also whole-heartedly believe that this togetherness, the vulnerable space they have to exist in to put themselves out there by writing and sharing, is greater than their fear.

And I’m kinda just wowed by their creativity and the scope of what some of them want to write. I’m sure as hell not going to stand in their way.

I don’t want to teach them to color outside the lines. I want to be the one who sets the paper ablaze, so we can all watch it burn.

But, grandiose Dead Poet’s Society dreams aside, at the very least, they’ll leave this little writing camp knowing that there’s one more adult out there in the world who thinks they’re awesome and believes in their creativity, who heard their story and their vision and celebrated it.

And that’s not nothing.

Confidential to New(ish) AntiRacists: Get a Life Raft

I don’t know everything.

Hell, I don’t know most things.

But here’s one thing I’m sure of: if you are a white person getting down to the hard, soul-searching work of becoming anti-racist, you’re going to need a life raft. Because there’s a tidal wave of rage, grief, regret, and full-blown horror headed your way.

Prepare yourself.

You’re about to discover that everything you’ve been taught is a lie. Racism is in the air we white folks have been breathing since the day we were born. It takes a lot of undoing. And, for some of us, the realization that the adults we trusted as children have programmed us to be unquestioning consumers of the message that people of color are inferior, deserve less, are in some way flawed, chose to be denied equity (and on and on and on) will be devastating.

The generation before us bought the lie and served it up to you. That is true. But we’ve all worked together to keep white supremacy alive and well. And being an somewhat-unwitting participant doesn’t absolve you of culpability.

You will recognize this, and it will rock you.

You may be called a race traitor. People will look at you sadly and accuse you of feeling having “white guilt” (and you may, if you just shuffle around with your head down saying “fuck fruit” and not doing anything. Don’t do that. It’s self-indulgent). They’ll ask you if you think you’re black (that one is particularly confounding to me). People will be assholes.

You’re about to engage in a completely new way of being. It is the right way. But it takes some serious psychic and spiritual equilibrium to ride this tidal wave.

That’s why you need a life raft.

Let me stop here. When you look around you, full of despair and itching for absolution, your instinct will be to run towards black folks and use them as your life raft.

Do NOT do this.

We’ve been taught (by our culture and sometimes by plain words) that black people exist in service to white feelings. They do not. Do not process your feelings with them, in front of them, near them.

Black people are busy. And they are done with our mess.

So where will your life raft come from? That’s up to you.

Maybe you go find you a good therapist to process the indoctrination of white supremacy and the dismantling of systemic racism with. If you’re choosing a new therapist, sniff out how they feel about antiracist work before you sign on. The last thing you need as you begin some of the deepest psychic work of your life is someone co-signing your bullshit as it arises. And it will arise.

Ferret out your white friends who are also engaged in antiracism work. If you don’t have some, make new friends. Talk to them. Share. Process. Avoid at all costs your white friends who are, in fact, racist. Anyone who thinks the status quo in America isn’t that bad will only frustrate you, bring you to tears, make you drown.

Go for a run. Take up yoga. Paint. Write poems. Dance. Sing. Meditate. Pray. Lay in a hammock. Stare at the clouds. Do what renews your soul.

You are a person. A whole, beautiful person. With a helluva lot of work to do.

Take care of yourself. You are no good to anyone if you get overwhelmed, throw up your hands, and decide nothing will ever change. You aren’t helping anyone if despair drives you deep into yourself. You can’t engage in a struggle if you’ve got both hands tied behind your back.

One of the least kind things that we, as allies, can do is process the ugliness of our own ancestry in front of black and brown folks. Choosing a life raft is a kindness–to you and to the people of color around you, who know all too well the havoc, chaos, and destruction that white supremacy wreaks.

Go find you a raft.

Then get back to work.

Now, What Happened Again?

Sometime around 6th grade or so, I got ahold of The Diary of Anne Frank. And suddenly, my world was awash in both the goodness and insight of a 13 year old European Jewish girl from forty years ago and the abject horror that human nature can unleash.

Both. At the very same time.

I, a WASPy eleven year-old living in the Florida suburbs, was completely enchanted by Anne’s urbaneness (she was a German girl living in Amsterdam–I couldn’t fathom that I’d ever visit either place) and her energetic and observant nature. I desperately wanted to be her friend. Or to be like her. Eleven is a hard, confusing age and reading Anne’s diary let me feel close to someone–another kid–that I admired and looked up to.

And then they killed her.

I was bereft.

Of course I knew what would happen when I picked up the book. I knew, intellectually, about the Holocaust. We’d covered the facts and figures–the loss of life, the utter devastation, the depravity of human nature–which are simply staggering. But numbers don’t speak to me like they speak to some people.

I didn’t understand what happened until I picked up The Diary of Anne Frank. And once you know–on a deep, soul level–the beauty and horror that occupy this life side by side, you can’t unknow.

I was obsessed.

I read and read and read. Every time I went to the library, I grabbed a book about the Holocaust. My mother tittered about my obsession. But I had so many questions. How could this have happened? I felt such loss. I loved Anne. And that love for her pushed me to examine the very hardest truths about life.

Stories change everything.

Anne Frank has been the gateway for reaching and teaching children about hope, strength of character, the destruction wrought by hatred, and the horror of war since the late 1940s. She made me better because she made me curious.

Stories make my daughter, Jane, curious, too. Some stories I wish I didn’t have to tell her, though. Like the story of what happened to George Floyd.

She listened quietly. I think she thought I was making it up at first. Because who puts their knee on someone’s neck and leaves it there as they scream “I can’t breathe!”? In Jane’s consciousness as a 9 year old, that doesn’t seem possible. It seems so absurd. Why would he do that?! she asked. I’ve never seen that look on her face before. That disbelief.

Because George Floyd was black.

That’s the answer I gave my 9 year old for why George Floyd died. Because that’s the truth.

We live in Southeast Atlanta. Jane is constantly surrounded by black excellence, black joy, black friends, black teachers and leaders all the time. That is a gift we gave her by moving here. She hears and sees the stories of black kids all the time–living, dreaming, laughing, just being. So when we talk with her about racism, she has an emotional understanding that I couldn’t have fathomed at her age–because she has something to connect with.

She can extrapolate. She knows her friends’ stories. And she knows the story of George Floyd. And that look of utter disbelief I got from her–it was about knowing how quickly that could become the story of someone she knows, someone she loves. It was the horror of knowing that, in this country, we allow people to die with someone’s knee on their neck for nothing more that being black.

She asks about George Floyd’s story. And Ahmaud Arbery’s. And Breonna Taylor’s. Over and over again.

So I tell her. Again.

She’s trying to make sense of something utterly senseless. She’s a bit obsessed. She’s been confronted with the horror of the war against blackness in this country.

And now that she knows their stories, she can never unknow them. Because stories change everything.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Check Yes or No

When we moved to Atlanta, we walked up into a ready-made group of friends we lovingly refer to as The Tacos. When we’re all together, there are 21 of us (adults & kids). And, pre-quarantine, every Thursday we’d taco. All together. In a restaurant. (Actually, there may be 23 of us … this is why no one ever asks me to do the final headcount before we get seated on Thursday nights).

We’re oh-so-lucky to have had this big group of friends in Atlanta from the get-go. Because, let’s be honest: making friends as an adult can be tricky at best.

I mean, where is one supposed to find these friends, exactly? Sure, you can be friends with your neighbors. And sometimes that evolves organically. You say “hey,” then you bbq together, then it’s all Saturday-afternoon-hangouts and backyard luaus.

Not really. I’ve never even been to a backyard luau. Ever.

You can be friends with your kids’ friends’ parents. But that can be as convoluted as it sounds. Just because your kids bonded over a great (and obsessive) love of building intricate Minecraft worlds doesn’t mean you will have a damn thing in common with the people who spawned that tiny human that your own tiny human finds so delightful.

Or maybe you stumble upon someone at work, or while you’re volunteering, or between the barbs flying at your neighborhood association meeting, that seems like quality potential-friend material. But then what?

You basically have to ask them on a friend date, for coffee or drinks or something of the sort. And friend dates have always made me even more nervous than regular dates–which means I bring all my awkward and only a fraction of my charm. And for the first few minutes, I’m so anxious I can barely hear myself think, much less hear the words coming out of my trial-friend’s mouth.

Fun times.

But something weird and cool has happened during quarantine. It’s like there’s a sensitivity/truth switch that’s been flipped on. I watch what people post on social media, and these posts have stopped being something to just kill time while I wait in line somewhere, something I scroll through while my mind is really somewhere else (how many distractions can I take on at one time, and still not really feel distracted?). They’ve become these little portals into other people’s worlds–not a constant stream of vacations and parties and activity, but a look into what really makes them them.

Because I own a bookstore, people also reach out to me all the time via text or email to see if I have a book, can recommend a book, have heard anything about a book.

I love books of all types. And I love to chat (much to Simon’s dismay sometimes).

So, when someone requests a book that I loooooved or they hit me up with a list of books about a topic that sets me on fire, I get to see a piece of them that might take about forever to get to in regular chit-chat out in the normal world. Which is so cool. Like truth serum. But with books.

Three times in the past (almost) 3 months now, after texts back and forth about books and then about kids or BIG life issues or COVID or protests, I’ve found myself texting: Hey, when this is over, let’s be better friends IRL.

And it’s not even like asking someone on a friend date–because I already know. I already know we can be friends because we are. We’ve built a friendship in this super-weird quarantiney world one text, one social media post, one one-liner joke at a time. I know more about them, I can guarantee you, than if we’d had 5 awkward coffee dates.

There’s something so simple and straightforward about sending that text. It’s like sliding them a note that says: Can we be friends? Check yes or no.

They’ve all checked yes (with smiley face emojis & exclamation marks), in case you were wondering.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

We All Have To Start Somewhere

Hey, white folks! I’ve got an idea: let’s stop shouting “Racist!” at each other just to end a conversation. Let’s honor where each person is in the long, hard, soulful world of becoming anti-racist, meet them where they are, and help them along.

Because it sure isn’t black folks’ job to do that. That’s all on white people.

I was at a meeting full of white folks who were ostensibly there to chip away at white supremacy and address institutional racism. An elderly, white, Southern woman shared something she and a friend were doing … I honestly can’t even remember what it was right now. What I do remember is the response from the young, white discussion facilitator. He interrupted her, voice raised: “That’s not enough! We have to move beyond that. We have to do more!” And he summarily dismissed her–right there. In front of well over 200 people.

Well, shit.

That’s not going to work.

There is so much work that needs to be done. It is constantly going to feel like we aren’t doing enough. That’s because we have not done enough. But this isn’t a sprint. Stop for a minute to think how long this struggle has gone on. Racism is pervasive and insidious. It is not going away overnight. But we also can’t be running (potential) allies off because we fancy ourselves so much more “woke” than them that we dismiss them completely.

I fully believe I will spend the rest of my life unspooling my own racism. There is no room for complacency. It’s unnerving to discover something so ugly lying so deeply inside yourself. It’s easier to turn away than address it. Bringing it out into the light so that you can examine and release it takes unwavering courage.

White people need to encourage each other in this work, not shout each other down constantly. Because you cannot, you should not–DO NOT–expect black people to praise, encourage, or emotionally support you in your work to dismantle white supremacy & systemic racism. Do not expect your black friends to offer you a cookie for cluing in to the abject horror that is the racial landscape in this country. This is not their work. They should not have to praise you for finally seeing what they’ve been telling you is happening all along.

When I write about being silent or simply listening, I’m speaking specifically about how I think white folks need to conduct themselves in racial justice settings or discussions where black folks are present. Plainly put: do not tell black people about their own experience, do not talk over them, do not justify. And do not attempt to assume a leadership role. They understand this struggle better than any white person every will, so just listen. And follow instructions. It sounds so simple. But I can guarantee that the internalized centering of whiteness will make it difficult. Do it anyway.

For the love of god, call out racism where you see it. There’s certainly no shortage of it. But make sure you’re not centering yourself, as a white person, in the discussion. Our egos make the desire to be more knowledgeable, more righteous, more “woke” seductive.

If you are white, assume a complete lack of wokeness on your part. It’ll keep you from behaving like an asshat among other white people who are trying their level best. Offer suggestion, lead by example, challenge people to do more–but that can only happen when we don’t dismiss people who are new to this anti-racist journey.

Look, I’m so far from perfect at this. A white person yelling “Racist!” at me can silence me from 100 paces.It happened a few years ago in a discussion about our local schools. It was an absolutely crucial discussion, one that could have had a resolution that was rooted in actual equity, more integration, and a better educational outcome for all the kids. But folks started hurling “Racist!” at me, and I tucked tail and ran. I regret it. I backed down from what I really believed was right. I shut down.

Which is why, among white folks, there needs to be an understanding: if you see someone doing that grueling work of addressing their own racism, encourage them. No, they aren’t doing enough. Neither are you. But we all have to start somewhere.

Photo by Ryan Wallace on Unsplash

Normal-Shmormal

Meeting with a new therapist is a bit like going on a first date–exciting, full of potential but hella unnerving. I’ve always been hell-bent on impressing my therapists with my great insight and wisdom. Which can make for an awkward therapist first-date.

Typically, I wait until I’m dangling on the precipice of a dramatic, jagged emotional abyss before I make a therapy appointment. I always think–against all odds–I can get all bootstrappy and handle it (whatever it is) on my own.

This particular time, just over a decade ago, it was infertility, crippling anxiety, and the sheer terror of navigating the full human range of emotions totally sober. So, you know, at least I was bringing a lot of material to work with.

I like to be prepared.

But even then, with all pressure and pain making it difficult to even breathe, I spent the first therapy session trying to convince the new therapist that I was completely normal.

How do I know about my unconscious master-plan to convince her of my expert level normalcy? Because she told me. Gently. She was a soft-talker. A careful question asker. I thought her overly-conciliatory tone and her constant encouraging affirmations were going to drive me bananas. Instead, they gave me a soft place to land.

She saved me from myself.

And she started by unravelling this whole “normal” bit.

From the time I was 8 years old, I’d been convinced that I was a complete weirdo freak. And that no one would love me if they really knew me. And, also, that I was completely irredeemable.

This made for a super-fun inner voice. The life of the party, really.

But this woman patiently listened and pulled at threads that seemed like they were attached to a different psychic sweater entirely, and yet… by the end… that restricting, suffocating sweater of “normalcy” lay destroyed at my feet.

It was like magic. But it wasn’t. It was hard work that her unwavering kindness and belief that I deserved better–even when I didn’t agree with her–made possible.

She pops into my mind sometimes when I’m doing yoga.

It’s okay if that seems weird. I’m not really caught up on the normal thing anymore.

And it always happens when I’m doing a heart-opening pose.

Yoga has been part of my path on and off since the darkest days of my active alcoholism. It was my toe-hold for the long, winding journey of pulling myself out of that hell. Those first yoga poses I learned allowed me to reconnect spirit to body, after a 6 month blackout (those 6 months really are totally lost to me, except for fragments here and there. And those fragments, honestly, I’d rather forget).

What finally pushed me into making that first, awkward therapy appointment with Dr. Soft-Talker was a heart-opening pose. I was doing yoga alone in a room, eyes glued to a video (I hadn’t quite tamped down my perfectionistic tendencies at that point. Progress not perfection, y’all). The soothing, rhythmic voice moved me into a pose that pushed my chest forward. Show the world your heart, he suggested from the screen of my laptop.

HELL no.

I physically couldn’t do it. I could not push my chest forward. I could not show anyone anything. Because there was so much ugliness, so much I hated inside. The fear was absolutely breath-snatching.

I sat down and cried at the sheer hopelessness of it all.

I found myself in the therapist’s office just a little while later. Being awkward. Totally avoid showing her my heart at all costs. She found it anyway. She was pretty damn good at her job.

And now, when I do heart-opening poses, which are some of my favorites, I can feel the love (for myself, humanity, the universe) open me to all the magic and beauty and tenderness in the world. And I feel such deep gratitude to this woman who believed that normal was bullshit and that I deserved more.

It’s been a process. Just like getting sober, healing and living a big, beautiful authentic life is a journey. Sometimes I’m good at it. Sometimes not so much. But I hang on to the lessons I’ve learned along the way. I build on them. And I keep trying.

New day. New try.

Namaste, y’all.

The Miraculous Power of Shutting Up

I did a very smart thing about 6 years or so ago: I started listening

Not very revolutionary, right?

Except, holy shit at the things you can learn if you just stop talking long enough.

Here’s the thing: encountering feminism in college gave me the mistaken impression I had license to talk all the damn time. I was tired of my desires and ideas being marginalized–I’d grown up in a super-conservative space in which women were fully expected to take a backseat to their husbands and all that bullshit. And, maybe, I didn’t do a very thorough examination of feminism (I can assure you there’s a lot more to it than just claiming center stage. Actually, center stage isn’t really so much even a thing…). I just heard what I wanted/needed to hear in that moment (the message to claim my voice) and ran with it.

In some ways, that served me. In other, long-term ways, my voice ultimately got all kinds of in the way of my ability to hear other people’s experience.

The first time I caught a whiff of intersectional feminism (a phrase coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, which examines overlapping systems of oppression, like being a person of color AND a woman) was when I took a head-over-heels-smitten deep dive into Alice Walker’s work in college. But, truth be told, when you aren’t ready for ideas, they just kind of slide off your psyche. And I totally wasn’t ready. The good news is that those ideas don’t just slide off into the abyss. They stick around, marinading in your brain until you are, in fact, struck down by the sheer magnitude of the truth of them one day, seemingly out of the blue.

For me, a woman with roots in Georgia and Alabama among people who were served by the social status quo of racism, I was afraid to take a serious look at my own internalized racism. Easier to just proclaim racism as “bad,”assure myself I’d never done anything (overtly) racist and carry on. I wasn’t hurting anyone, so I was a good person.

Right?

I think about that self (a little smug, but definitely full of fear and 100% lacking in understanding about the complexities and pervasiveness of institutionalized racism), and I want to shake her. Hard.

But that was my journey. And anything else just isn’t the truth. 

When unarmed black men started dying at alarming rates (or, more accurately, when cell phone video made it harder to deny that unarmed black men were dying at alarming rates), I started paying attention. And, once you see–really see–with your heart what is happening, when you witness the ravages in racism as real lives lost, real suffering, real and sometimes deadly inequity, you cannot unsee it. 

And it brings grief. So much grief. 

You can get overwhelmed by the grief. But let’s call that what it is: a cop-out. Because, y’all, there is so much work to be done. 

It’s instructive here to just grab a glimpse of what it looks like to people of color, who’ve been doing the grueling work of liberation and the uber-frustrating, often futile work of just getting white people to listen, when white folks jump into a shame/self-loathing cycle (which is mainly just a way to avoid actually doing anything). This excerpt is from a piece that appeared in The Root aptly entitled “Four Emails White People Send to Black People When Black People Talk or Write about Racism:”

I’m so fucking tired of White people and being a White person. We are so fucking awful. I hate myself. I hate my white skin and my even whiter than my white skin teeth . . . .Sometimes I look in the mirror in the morning and I just want to peel my skin off like an orange, taking each layer of whiteness off and tossing it in the trash with the rest of the fucking garbage. Actually, since oranges are covered in white pith after you peel them, that analogy doesn’t quite work. I guess bananas and apples and pears don’t either. Shit, have you ever realized how disgustingly white most fruit is when you peel the outer layers off? Goddamn there’s no end to this shit. Fuck racism, fuck white people, fuck whiteness, and fuck fruit.

Damon Young, Very Smart Brothas

While it’s true that sometimes if feel like there is no end to this shit, getting all fuck fruit on the systemic racism and white supremacy in the United States isn’t gonna work. Why? Because it completely lacks action. It centers whiteness and how “bad” we feel.

Feeling bad never changed anything. In fact, it’s a pretty clear path to self-pity and self-loathing.

Not helpful.

But one simple suggestion from Glennon Doyle a few years ago pulled me out of that fuck fruit cycle. She suggested that folks follow at least one person on social media that was different from them in some way. That’s it. Totally doable.

Rather arbitrarily I picked Ijeoma Oluo and Ally Henny. Seriously good choices that I deserve no credit for.

Here’s what these two women of color have offered this white girl: the ability to see the world from a different lived experience, deeper insights into the subtle ways of racism, and access to knowledge that I now don’t have to ask the black folks in my life for.

Because literally one of the last things your black co-worker, black neighbor, black friend wants to do is answer your questions about racism.

Totally not kidding on that.

If you have questions, if you’re having trouble envisioning how our culture looks stripped of the privilege of whiteness or if you want to know what you (as a white person) can do to make things better, ask the interwebs. Use Google. I hear its a pretty good search engine. Follow folks on IG or Facebook.

But remember that, to learn anything, you have to be willing to listen. Not justify. Not speculate. Not excuse. Not enable. Just listen.

It will break your heart. That much is true. But then you’ll know. And then you can move into action. Because make no mistake: racism a white folks’ problem. And now, NOW, is the time to fix it.