Out into the Sun

The difference between comfort and nurture is this: if you have a plant that is sick because you keep it in a dark closet, and you say soothing words to it, that is comfort. If you take the plant out of the closet and put it in the sun, give it something to drink, and then talk to it, that is nurture.

Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estés

I’ve got a friend who is a touchstone for me, someone who constantly pushes me back toward my center, toward the sun. And she doesn’t even have to be near me to work this sort of healing. I’ve been around her enough that I’ve internalized bits of the ways she moves through the world and, when I’m feeling conflicted, I lean on her wisdom (that’s become my own) to guide my choices.

We all need a friend like her. But in case there’s a vacuum in your world and you find yourself stuck in a dark closet, I’ll share the alchemy of her magic with you:

She is unwaveringly honest. And kind.

I’ve been around folks who hide behind honesty, using it as a sword, swinging it about, lopping off heads left and right if they get too close or get out of line. That kind of cold honesty keeps people at a distance. If it happens to be directed at you, it leaves you shivering, exposed and wounded.

This is not that.

Her truth isn’t something you have to brace yourself for. It’s woven flawlessly in her interactions. She isn’t the kind of person who builds up the courage to tell you something, acting like she wishes she didn’t have to say it. Making you feel like, if only you’d done better, we wouldn’t all be in this painful moment of truth-telling.

We all know that type.

This is not that, either.

It’s refreshing to be around her. Never once have I had to second-guess a word she said. I’m never afraid she’s going to commit to doing something she doesn’t want to do/can’t do just to appease me. I know exactly where I stand all the time.

And the “difficult” things that sometimes need to be said in the world, well they just don’t seem that difficult when she says them. I’d say she delivers truth with unflinching honesty–but that doesn’t feel quite true. Because “unflinching” implies a harshness that simply isn’t there. She delivers truth as if it were water and sunshine, things that will help you thrive.

She is a healer, a truth-sayer, a nurturer.

And that’s really the thing: she doesn’t comfort. There are not platitudes to be had around her. There’s no pretending. Sometimes it feels like she’s simply reimagined the whole world into this place where we all live our truth with kindness and magnanimity.

As a recovering passive-aggressive, sometimes I find myself realizing I need to be honest about a hard truth (instead of squashing it down and then making everyone suffer in the name of my martyrdom). Or I find myself on the brink of committing to something that strips the joy out of my soul–but I’m just convinced I can’t say no to.

And those, those are the moments she moves me out into the sun and offers me a drink of water. Because, instead of acting in ways that move me further from my own truth, I drop my ridiculous pretenses, take a breath and think about what she’d do.

The result is approximately one billion times better for everyone involved.

Her presence in my life has moved me toward a place where honesty is less something I have to perform and more and more just something that is laced into who I am.

She’s pushed me to be a nurturer not a comforter. Because everyone deserves sunlight, water, and encouragement. She’s taught me to imagine what it would look like if we all just lived our truths right out in the sun. It’s a beautiful vision.

And she’s done all this simply by being who she is.

I’m Not Anxious. You’re Anxious.

I woke up on Monday so anxious that my arms were numb.

When I relayed this information to Simon later, he thought I was pretty nonchalant about what he was convinced may have been a fatal malady.

But this is not my first rodeo.

I know precisely how my anxiety manifests. And the cold, lack of feeling in my hands… yep. That’s just anxiety, showing up for the party.

In the hell-in-a-handbasket environs of late, it’s not super surprising my anxiety reared its head. COVID-19 has made me reckon with the hard truth that I’m a bit of a hypochondriac (read: I’m always 85% sure I’m dying of something). I’ve managed my pandemic anxiety relatively well by simply being cautious. We’ve been social distancing since March 15th. Which is a fucking long time. I have a whole variety of masks to choose from, because I wear one any time I’m close to other humans. Hell, I go grocery shopping at 7am just to avoid other people.

But when we went to the LGBTQ+ March for Black Lives on Sunday, suddenly I was around a shit ton of people. And, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but some people really struggle with this mask thing. Like, for instance, wearing it over their mouths but below their nose.

Uh… NO.

Or–and this is my favorite–the folks who take off their masks to sneeze.

What the fuck, y’all? The mask says on. If we don’t all do it right, nobody is safe.

So, yeah, a large march both fed my soul & made me feel like I was actively participating in the Black Lives Matter movement—and scared the shit out of me. Cue the internal certainty I’m about to meet my ultimate demise because folks can’t wear a mask right.

And then, just for fun, my anxiety will grab on to every single thing I think I haven’t done right in, oh my entire life, and have a field day with it. And soon, I am petrified that I am in the midst of financial ruin (we’re not), that I’m going to lose the bookstore because I’m an idiot (I’m not), that my mistakes make me unredeemable and unworthy and just horrible (no, nope, nah).

The culmination? Waking up sweating, pinned to the bed in a panic, unable to feel my fingers.

Anxiety has been woven throughout my story since I was 8 years old. What does anxiety look like in an 8 year old? Begging to be able to order my own food at a restaurant (I wanted steak tips). Being met with sighs, insistence that I’d never be able to eat it all myself, that my mom and I should share food just like we had my entire life, that we’d be wasting money… and then getting my food and being seized with terror.

And not being able to eat a damn bite.

Fast forward to my second year of sobriety.

I’m 35 years old. Teaching First Year Writing at the University of South Florida–a job I adore. We’re trying to get pregnant. And every single day I’m seized with such anxiety I can barely breathe.

Not feeling my fingers was the least of my problems.

I often had to step out, mid-class (I was the teacher), just to breathe and talk myself into finishing the class. And I taught 4 or 5 classes–so this was a daily struggle. One class in particular stoked my anxiety to the point that I completely disassociated from my body. I’d feel myself receding, and suddenly it felt like someone else was talking, going through the motions, laughing with students.

I was gone.

I thought about quitting. Of course I did. It was emotionally wrenching just to make it through a day. But I also knew anxiety was a monster that wanted to take what was mine. And teaching was mine. I would not relenquish it. Period.

And so I fought through. With help from a good therapist. And Simon, who always nodded kindly when I explained my abject terror at… life. No matter how my anxiety manifested, he never got impatient. For several years, he knew where every single public restroom was in greater Tampa Bay. Because that was the only way I could manage to leave the house–if I knew I could find a public restroom in a flash.

Anxiety is weird.

But Simon never made me feel weird. To him, I was just a regular person dealing with this intense thing. I always felt like he saw my anxiety as separate from me. And, so, with his help, the therapist’s unwavering, gentle pushing at me to let go of all the bullshit I was holding on to, and little victories every day that I didn’t give in to my anxiety…

Well, it went away.

I know. That’s anticlimactic. As a storyteller, I want to give you this one big moment where I slayed the fire-breathing anxiety dragon.

But that’s not how it worked for me.

It was more like I wouldn’t play anxiety’s stupid, made-up games anymore, so it took it’s toys and went home in a huff.

Occasionally, it still rings the doorbell to see if I can come out and play. This time, though, it snuck in really quietly, so it could yell BOO! and try to frighten me out of going to the march.

But anxiety is just a bully. And the only way over is through.

So, I used my words to tell Simon I felt anxious. We went to the march anyway. I used my words to tell Simon I woke up so afraid I couldn’t feel my fingers. I got out of bed anyway. I did the things I always do: I had coffee, read, wrote. I left the house and delivered books… just life stuff.

And at some point, I took a deep breath and realized my anxiety was gone.

I know that, in part, its stay was short this time because I didn’t hold on to it, probe it, feed it, or give in to it. I just acknowledged it and let that shit go.

The only way over is through.

This Is The Work

The first time I marched with Black Lives Matter, some friends were concerned. It was after Alton Sterling and Philando Castille were murdered by police in 2016. And literally the day after Dallas. Safety concerns were real. But safety concerns for black people have been real in this country since its inception.

I could not understand, at my core, why every person I knew wasn’t out marching in the street. I wanted to shake people. This fight was urgent, dire. But most people I knew, my friends, were–in my estimation–continuing on as if nothing had happened.

I felt like I was screaming into a void.

Imagine, if I (a white girl from the suburbs), felt that kind of angst… well, just imagine what black folks have felt the whole time they’ve been trying to get us to pay attention. It must be maddening.

When I see white folks on Facebook demanding that anyone who isn’t ready to go out and march for black lives right now should unfriend them, I get the impulse. I do.

But it’s wrong.

If I’d written off every person who wouldn’t march with me during the summer of 2016, I’d have been pretty lonely these past 4 years.

Know what so many of those folks are doing now?

Yup. Marching for black lives.

It’s amazing to see that kind of cultural shift. And it’s one I wouldn’t get to see if I’d galloped away on my moral high horse.

When white folks are instructed to collect our cousins, it means calling out racism and demanding real accountability. But it also means having hard conversations with folks who don’t agree with us. Not just writing them off.

Racism is a white people problem. Which means its our job to educate other white folks. So, when your childhood friend says things like, “rioting doesn’t solve anything,” it’s your job to push back. Not to just shake your head sadly and remove her from your Christmas card list.

It’s true that sharing the most vulnerable parts of your antiracism journey with folks who aren’t on the same page is only going to bring you more pain–and possibly give you what feels like a good excuse to give up.

But educating people isn’t the same thing. Educating other white folks is the work. It’s work black people have been doing for years–without ceasing. We can’t just shrug and walk away from folks who don’t get it after a week.

Writing people off misses the point entirely. And it lets me off the hook by suggesting that I have arrived in my antiracist journey. But, in this country, is that really even possible?

I feel 100% sure every black person I know has had to practice extreme patience with me in some capacity. I’ve been educated for free by not only the black people in my life, but those I follow on social media who share their insight & experience daily. No matter how exhausting the effort.

The least I can do is pay that forward.

Don’t give up on the white folks you know who aren’t there yet. You do you. Keep sharing what you learn. Keep having hard conversations. And when it all seems exhausting, remember this is the work.

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.

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.

Love Doesn’t Need That Mess

I sat cross-legged on the floor, near enough to the other kids to look like part of the group. But, while they fidgeted and whispered, my attention remained rapt. Other kids felt mysterious to me; I never really got what they wanted me to say or do. Like maybe other kids had some sort of instruction manual, but mine–even though it should only have taken 4-6 weeks for delivery–was lost forever & now I was just going to wing it.

So far, it wasn’t going particularly well.

But adults: I knew how to be in their presence, knew what the expected responses were. In short: adults were easier. So I paid more attention to them.

So, now I sat dutifully on the tightly woven carpet of a Sunday school classroom, staring up at our teacher. It was just kind of in my nature to be bizarrely well behaved (and also, my mother’d put the fear of God in me about misbehaving in church). But also, even though I was only 7 or so, the kind of church we attended had already started drilling down on the “getting saved” bit.

Fires of hell? No, thank you. I was sure gonna pay attention to how to avoid all that mess.

But now, suddenly, the teacher started talking about dreams and waking up in the middle of the night. My ears pricked forward. Because I couldn’t ever remember a time I didn’t wake up with my heart frozen in terror, my feet pounding the floor to my parents’ bedroom before I even registered my first real, waking thought.

Maybe I’d get some solid advice on how to not be scared. Because adults know things, right? Or at least at that point I thought they did. (Now I know better.) Adults always seemed to have some secret key to universal knowledge that would magically unlock all the answers and make the world make sense. I could not wait to be one of them. An adult with answers. That was my aspirational goal. At 7.

Although I can’t remember this part super clearly, I’m pretty sure the teacher opened this whole conversation with the “Satan is tricky” motif. Fair enough. A universal antagonist.

But in these stories, Satan was always trying to get in. Actively. Not in a dual nature, we all have good-and-evil inside, choose wisely sort of way. Like in a monster who breathes sulfur, who can morph and change and trick you, so you always have to be on guard to fight as a warrior for Christ sort of way.

Let’s just be clear: that’s some scary shit.

But this man is going to tell me how to keep Satan at bay. At least I hope so. Because now I’m really scared.

“If you ever wake up in the middle of the night,” he continues on (and this should sound like a ghost story, but for all the world it doesn’t. It sounds more like practical advice, like how to escape your house in the case of fire), “and you see a loved one who has died standing in your room (here I thought of my great-grandmother, because she was literally the only person I knew who’d died at that point) and that loved one calls to you, do not go to them. It may actually be a demon calling you to them. Satan will try to get at you whatever way he can. He’ll even use the memory of people you love who have died.”

What. the. actual. fuck?!?

For years afterward–years–I was afraid I’d wake up in the middle of the night to see the visage of my great-grandmother bathed in moonlight beckoning me to her. And what if I wasn’t strong enough to resist? What if I was lured to her and spent eternity with the fires of hell raging around me because I’d made a mistake?

That’s a damn big ‘what if’ for a kid to carry around.

Not until I was an adult did I see clearly that fear is simply a way to rule over and control people. Love, real love, has nothing to do with fear. Love doesn’t need that mess. Not at all.

I wish I could go back and tell that 7 year old that the Universe is full of love for her. That she can find all the peace she needs right inside her own heart. And that one day, she’ll have no idea what God is–not at all. And that not-knowing will feel like such a gift, full of possibility and light.

But I’ll settle for telling a little bit of her story. Because that’s healing in its own right, too.