After the Purge

Change/Transformation, Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Life, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

Sitting down to write this post took an enormous effort of will.  I finished an online creative nonfiction course a few weeks ago and I stopped writing regularly as soon as my final essay was complete, so it’s been maybe two months of unexpected and welcome relief.  For the last two years, writing about my experience in the prison has been a release of sorts.  It helped capture my thoughts and feelings, although it’s unclear whether it helped me release either but probably not.  Nothing short of a complete separation would have accomplished that feat.

Today, I’m close to eight months away from my last day at CCCF.  Most of these last eight months have been spent de-toxifying from my time there, and learning how to operate as a normal human being again.  Those years, combined with the years of stress and uncertainty preceding them had turned me into an anxious, brittle, and fearful woman.  I had some success hiding just how anxious, brittle and fearful I had become, but I was never able to hide it from myself.

Those years ate my light; they consumed everything I knew of beauty and grace and joy and spirit.

Lately though, the writing has been pressing on me, memories lingering in my consciousness.  The stories of my time there, my relationships with the women I taught, and observations about the system constantly break the surface, jarring me with their presence.  I can shove them back under, but they are still there. I’ve asked the non-intellectual part of my being to grieve and celebrate this enormous transition and it’s been thrilled to comply, so I’ve been processing mainly through art these several months.  But as much as I love exploring drawing and illustration for emotional release, I cannot tell these stories through that art.  Words are my medium, and the words are softly demanding my attention.

I just don’t know how to start again.

Being away from all that pain and suffering makes it less immediate, and reduces the feeling of urgency.  That voice that demanded, constantly, that I let people KNOW and do my part to change the system has quieted.  It rouses occasionally, but it is lackadaisical, at best.  I’ve stepped away from all the information sources that used to stimulate my awareness,  deliberately choosing to set all that pain to the side.  It is a position of privilege, but I cannot bring myself to feel shame or guilt about this choice.

I feel light and happy and safe. Work doesn’t feel like much work, it’s a delight to do something less fraught, where a mistake won’t mean drastically increasing someone else’s suffering.  This new path is a great gift, and all I want to do is enjoy the days, do art, and drift.  Even thinking about writing that story feels hard.

I’ve realized that almost all the writing I do is somehow related to suffering – to trauma and oppression and the misery of the world.  When I think about writing a memoir, whether it’s about CCCF or not, my thoughts focus on the sad and miserable things that brought me to where I am today.  How do I write about all of those things – feelings, events, circumstances, choices – without putting myself back in that grueling, grunting space?  It’s not a matter of self-judgment, it almost feels like self-preservation.

How do I stay connected to this precious gift of light and space and relief if I’m writing about those pain-soaked years?  I know they are part and parcel of who I am, but I’m ready to write a new story about myself.  How do I hold this new facet, and gently touch and release the old?

Figure vomiting words

Give It Up

Another Brick in the Wall

Hard Stuff, Power/Privilege, Rants, Social Justice, Systems, Uncategorized

Despite all the tensions between the police and so many citizens of Portland,  The Portland Police Foundation decided it would be cool to host an invite-only, $1000 per head play date with whomever they deem desirable. It is impossible to comprehend how an organization that supports a police bureau and union that publicly wail about how badly we (the citizenry) misunderstand and misinterpret its motives could think this type of event is appropriate, or even useful.

Am I on board with PPB offering a look into their training and operations?  Sure!  It would be great for them to host regular tours and visits for people who want to understand how officers are trained, how policy is determined, what resources are available, and build relationships with the Bureau.  It would provide more transparency, humanize both police officers and civilians, and maybe start to ease some of the tensions we’ve seen building over the last decade.

But an invite-only, $1000 per person ticket to exclusive police access?

The price alone is prohibitive for most people, and who knows how they’re going to select their “special” playdate invitees.  Regardless, the event seems designed to give a select group of people privileged access, thereby removing even the facade of police neutrality in dealing with citizens.  The fact that it’s hosted by the Foundation (and not the Bureau) is almost irrelevant, special access is special access.  Wanting to re-open the community academy is an admirable goal, but they honestly couldn’t come up with a different fundraising idea?

In many organizations, the recent DOJ investigation (which found significant problems with a variety of bureau practices and policies) would have spurred initiatives designed to start rebuilding trust with the communities who have been most affected by police violence and brutality.  Even when individual officers do good work, their efforts are undermined or overshadowed by a system of racist practices, excessive use of force, and seeming disregard for the welfare of black and brown communities.

An event that caters to the wealthy and offers privileged access not only deepens the divide and corrodes what little trust may remain, it feels like a giant “fuck you” to the rest of us.  Oh, and before I forget, who’s paying for this exclusive fundraising romp through publicly-funded police time and equipment?  Yes!  Us – the taxpayers!  I wonder how many other private foundations get the same benefit – a fully functioning public entity available for its personal fundraising use?  That the Foundation would do something that seems so contrary to the best interests of PPB (and its public image) and the people who live in this city makes the dig even deeper.

police public comment-wqs

The Basest Discourse

Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Leadership, Obstacles/Challenges, Power/Privilege, Reflection, Uncategorized

Even taking remarks made by the Democratic candidates with a giant teaspoon of salt, I am saddened and disheartened.  Although it’s almost impossible to know what was actually said, or to trust the media at all, it’s glaringly obvious that Trump’s candidacy has already done incredible harm to our country.  Among Trump’s multitude of attributes is his ability to bring out the absolute worst in anyone and anything.

It’s like a +500 Miasma of the Monstrous – a soul-crushing, anti-decency superpower.

He brings out the basest, crassest, and most fear-riddled primal instincts in those who agree with him, but that’s not the worst.  He also brings out the most disgusting, reprehensible aspects of those of us who disagree with him.  I’ve watched the endless parade of blaming, shaming, nose-picking, name-calling, schoolyard insults rolling across all of my social media feeds, and not all of it is directed at Trump.

It’s as if his presence, in and of itself, has poisoned the entire well, rendering all of us incapable of decency or civility.

In no way am I saying that he is qualified to lead this country, in any way that would make us or the world better.  In no way is he qualified, capable, or even interested in such a task.  He is interested in controlling as many people as possible, making them jump, watching them race around after their own tails, and we’re all obliging him.  It would be easy to blame it all on the media and every media outlet in this country bears a significant share of the blame for giving him the attention he so desperately craves.

But “the media” doesn’t make the memes and videos and “the media” doesn’t come up with all the coarse jokes and bathroom humor we’re throwing around.  We’ve allowed ourselves to be pulled into a giant shit pile, and we are wallowing with abandon.  Democrats are railing at each other in the same awful way they’re railing at Trump, to the point of threatening to sit out an election if their Chosen One isn’t selected as the nominee.

Where we choose to focus our attention matters.  What we choose to accept as important, as significant, matters.  How we choose to interact with those who disagree with us matters.  How we conduct ourselves, especially as we select our leaders, matters.  That the rest of the world is watching us, speechless at our reckless, thoughtless, and immature behavior matters.  That we are causing increasing harm to our identity as a nation while this man chuckles himself to sleep every night, matters.

We are human.  One of our greatest gifts is our freedom of will, our freedom to choose to be better, to treat each other with dignity and respect, even when we are afraid or angry. Using tactics of hatred and aggression to tear down Trump and his supporters will only result in a nation full of hatred and violence, regardless of who is elected.  I know it is hard to consider courtesy, or kindness, when emotions run high, but I see a grim future if we don’t at least try.

kindness

White Discomfort

Change/Transformation, Hard Stuff, Power/Privilege, Social Justice, Systems, Uncategorized

This is a post for white people everywhere, myself included. Any time you find yourself uncomfortable or unhappy in a conversation about race, don’t say anything until you consider this : For hundreds of years, black people died or were tortured for saying anything beyond “yes” or “no” and possibly even for that.

There is no way to ever justify or right that wrong. None.

The legacy of those hundreds of years has brought us to the point that black people today not only need and want to discuss their thoughts and feelings about this terrifying past, they have the platforms to do so, in ways they never have before.

Because so many black and brown voices have been brutally punished or silenced, we are given a great honor when these same voices continue to speak, continue to demand justice. They give us the chance to be better than we are, to make the right choices, and be our best selves.

Given that history, when I consider that black and brown people call themselves my friend and are kind to me, it seems the least I can do is deal with a bit of discomfort. I may feel defensive or ashamed or guilty, but those feelings are normal, if unwanted. It is MY job to hold them, not my friends’ job to make me feel better.

I don’t like making shaming comparisons, but my feelings of discomfort and guilt are minor next to the massive system of racial oppression that has existed in the US for centuries. Those feelings are almost nothing compared to the pain, degradation, and deaths of millions of dark-skinned folk. Next time we’re feeling antsy, remember that black people have felt like this for hundreds of years, but have kept silent for fear of their lives.

How many times have my black and brown friends and fellow humans felt uncomfortable or afraid because of the color of their skin? How often have I? How many times have they wanted to speak about their discomfort but were afraid of significant retaliation? How often have I?

For most of us white folk, if we are being truly honest, the answers are rarely and even more rarely. Our skin color has given us the right to openly discuss our discomfort and not fear retaliation based on our race.

This message isnt directed at people who are passively enjoying their privilege as beneficiaries of a racist system. Those people don’t care and probably won’t feel uncomfortable anyway. But for those of us who are trying, part of our work is to find the courage to own our discomfort, and not look to our black and brown friends for comfort.

It really is the very least we can do.

image

The Myth of Expectations

Blergh, Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Rants, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

I recently read a post from one of those “mindful” dating sites.  The author was writing about the “myth” of dating difficulties for people over 40.  She abruptly found herself dating at 45 and, despite all her friends’ dire predictions, was having an absolute BLAST! And you know what she claims is wrong with her friends?  They just have the wrong expectations!  If they would clean up their emotional bullshit and change their expectations, all the chum they’d been attracting would disappear and they’d suddenly have their pick of ridiculously awesome people.

I’m here to call bullshit on that entire perspective, and the implication that I’m just not doing my personal work well enough, that I continue to attract bad things to myself because I’m not working fast enough to unload my baggage.  This effectively makes every sh*tty thing that happens MY FAULT.  Because I’m not doing a good enough job being better.

Seriously?  I’m not doing good enough AT BEING BETTER?

Despite years of messaging about “creating my reality,” I have come to understand that most things that happen that are out of my control.  I get to control my responses and reaction and choices, but I’m not responsible for the fact that so many people in their 30s and 40s are hot messes.  Or that I get coffee with them.  Or that I lose my job, fight with a friend, or face ageism, or racism, or misogyny, or all that other crap that REALLY TRULY EXISTS.  Simply putting on my ruby slippers, clicking my heels, and breathlessly exclaiming “everything is wonderful, everything is wonderful, everything is wonderful” DOESN’T MAKE EVERYTHING WONDERFUL.

One of the hardest things to learn is that there are many, many things I HAVE NO CONTROL OVER, regardless of how much work I do on myself.  I still have to deal with bad dates, difficult co-workers, aggravating family, and a world that seems like it’s going to somewhere bad, really fast.  It’s not helpful to keep blaming me because bad things happen to me, in my life, and in the world.  In fact, it’s that message – that I can somehow magically control everything in my life that has led to bouts with anxiety, depression, and shame and guilt, all things that add to the already heavy burden of being human.

It’s true – I do need to do my work, address my issues, and be the best person I can be.  It’s true that I do need to check in on my expectations, ask for feedback from friends  and professionals, and realize that sometimes I do make bad choices.  But sometimes, a bad coffee date or fight with a friend is just that, and blaming me for somehow creating the situation because I’m not an evolved enough person is truly, truly unhelpful.

unhelpful

Taking turns

Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

Seth Godin continually reads my mind.  Today, I woke feeling the depression and anxiety pressing in closer and closer.  I don’t mention this to my friends, don’t post about it on Facebook, and haven’t written about it publicly because it’s not useful for me.  I don’t want a bunch of likes or stickers or eAdvice or virtual condolences.   So why am I writing this post?  Because Seth wrote this one about whose turn it is and it made me cry.

Sometimes, all I want is for someone to acknowledge that the continuing to do the work, whatever it is, is hard when it feels like it’s never my turn.  I don’t want anyone to try and cheer me up, admonish me for thinking negatively, or tell me how great I am; I don’t need a cheerleader or a counselor or a conscience, or someone telling me “it’s not about turns,” or “think of all the things you have to be grateful about.”

Sometimes, I need to be sad and depressed and feel like my whole life hasn’t been my turn, or that I’ve let all my turns slip on by.  There are days where nothing helps. The best I can do is use my brain as a tire iron, jack my body out of bed, and find somewhere to sit and pretend to write or fill out job applications, check job boards, or read my Twitter feed.

I woke up to my life so late, took so much time figuring out the most basic things about myself that I can’t help but think that maybe my window closed, and the best I can hope for is to watch through someone else’s.  The desire to be significant, to matter, to be someone of consequence is overwhelming, and all I can think is that I haven’t done enough to create a turn for myself.

I’m not looking for comfort or reassurance or support, I’m writing to get this out of my mind so I can put  my brain to work elsewhere.  Seth is right.  Regardless of how I feel, I can keep making choices as if it is my turn.  The critical thing is to keep doing the work, creating art, being open and responsive, and the turn will make itself.

At least I’m not a bullet.

bulletfired

Conversations with Life, #3

Hard Stuff, Life, Obstacles/Challenges, Peace/Conflict, Social Justice, Uncategorized, Writing

Life,

It’s M again and today, I want to kill someone, or die.  No. Neither of those is true, but I’m consumed, eaten with rage at another round of mass murders, this time impacting people I know and care about.  All these mass gun murders deeply touch my soul, but this was in my home state, in my college community, and it punched me in the heart.

I consider myself a reasonable person, compassionate, and willing to see all sides of an issue, but I’m done.  I’m done trying to understand the perspective of people who seem to not care that guns are used daily to murder and terrorize hundreds and thousands of innocent people in this country.  I’m done with the bullying and threatening and open-carry intimidation when legislators and citizens try to get even minimal gun control laws on the books.

There is no reason here.  There is no attempt to meet in the middle, no attempt to understand suffering, or even agreement that sometimes, sometimes, an individual’s right to carry a weapon is trumped by another individual’s right to simply live.

How do I move forward so gorged with hatred and fear?  All I feel capable of doing is violence.

Dear M,

There is no reasoning with fear.  And there is no way to understand another person’s particular, personal terror.  There is also nothing that says you have to try.  It is your choice to try or not, and there are consequences either way. Your ability to move through this time may feel compromised and it is up to you to take the necessary steps to help yourself cope in a way that aligns with who you are.

You are not hatred. You are not rage or fear or abject, gibbering terror.  None of you are but many of you don’t remember that.  Many of you live in that profound, unconscious state of terror every day.  It is exhausting for every single one of you living on that planet, but that is the nature of the human condition, and your greatest individual challenge.

Remembering that you are NOT a being made of fear, cowering in a darkened cave is the hardest act and the greatest.

Always,

Life

When things get worse

Corrections, Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Power/Privilege, Social Justice, Systems, Uncategorized

This is a long post.  It is a recap of a situation that arose with a student and its unexpected resolution.  It is long because some of the nuances are unusual and specific to corrections. In order to convey the importance of the more seemingly mundane details, I have offered more explanation than I normally would.

——————————————————————————————————-

One of the worst things about working in a prison is that I see the direct, immediate impact of systemic limitations on real, living people all the time.  I had a student (I’ll call her Martha) who, like most of them, had a terrible history of abuse and trauma. But Martha’s was worse, I think, because it involved child abuse from a family member, multiple court appearances and testifying, all concluding only a short time before her incarceration.  She had another family member pass from a drug overdose around the time she started my class, no mother or father, and two other siblings still using.

When Martha started my class, she had no history of counseling for any of these issues, no treatment or programming, no cognitive or emotional management training, nothing.  She was somehow getting through her days, although I couldn’t say how.  Martha had incredibly high levels of anxiety around academics and testing, as most of my students do, and it took her a while to settle.  About the time she started to relax, I realized she would be eligible for treatment and grew concerned.

Treatment is hard inside the razor wire.  It’s hard outside, but it’s a different type of hard in here.  There is no safety, no privacy, the “peer leadership” model means that the sick are tasked with trying to lead the sick, and there is no option to escape or leave that doesn’t come with significant consequences. There is little therapeutic support, which is highly problematic for people who have such desperate need for therapy.

Add to those fundamental problems that most of these women have suffered trauma and abuse, and that predators and prey are expected to physically co-exist and support each other, and we have a recipe for a toxic, potentially dangerous environment.  The cherry on the sundae is that the women are all expected to behave as if this is a safe, supportive community where they’re all working to help each other, even though the opposite is more often true.  The women compete, sabotage, act out their extensive range of dysfunctional coping mechanisms, and prey on each other mercilessly. That some women are able to learn from the experience and deal with some of their thinking and behavior is miraculous.

Knowing this and knowing a bit of Martha’s history, I contacted two colleagues and expressed my concern.  It was during that conversation that I learned that our therapists are tasked (almost exclusively) with crisis management (using DBT), and almost, but not quite, forbidden from engaging in clinical therapeutic practice.  It may be different in the Medium, but that’s what happens in the Minimum.  The end result of the conversation was that there was little we could do except know that putting Martha in treatment could backfire and that it would be risky for her.  She still wanted to try, so we accepted her decision.

I need to clarify that I believe that this lack of clinical therapeutic practice is a simple function of resources, i.e. money.  Even on the Medium side, they have limited spots in the more intensive mental health treatment programs, and those spots are saved for those with the worst of the worst mental health issues – regardless of whether the treatment could help them be okay outside prison or not.  Taxpayers simply don’t want to fork over more money to deal with people who are incarcerated.  Or maybe the money is there and legislators don’t want to give it to DOC for the same reasons.

Corrections is a giant sinkhole for cash, in part because the population has giant, overwhelming, seemingly endless needs.  DOC is tasked with using not enough money to deal with a bottomless well of need, and clinical therapy is one of the areas that never has enough of anything.  It’s possible there are regulatory or legislative mandates preventing more intensive therapeutic practice, but I don’t know.  In any case, the upshot was that Martha would receive no additional counseling if her past trauma started coming up in treatment – she’d have to figure out how to get through it with peer support and what little staff support we could provide.

Her treatment experience had a rough start.  Her start date wasn’t clarified so we had to juggle for a few weeks so she could continue in my class and, as we found out later, she was shifted from one counselor’s caseload to another.  She and I spoke several times because I could see that she was having a hard time, but she was sort of managing, and there was nothing else I could do.  It’s a delicate issue to even appear to question treatment staff, especially based on the word of an inmate.

Even if I’m trying to clarify something I was told, it can be easily misinterpreted as a critique of staff, allowing an inmate to triangulate staff against each other, or believing an inmate over staff.  Whether real or imagined, those are all serious breaches of etiquette and, if true, can be a problem for any staff person found “guilty.”  So I do the same thing that the counselors do – help students manage crisis and look for ways to navigate a fraught, toxic, confusing, and often frightening environment.

I’m also not a mental health professional and, even though I know them fairly well, I only know them through one aspect of their daily lives.  One of the hardest things about my job is realizing that what they show me – no matter how positive – is only one face and maybe not their primary face.  I try to believe that the people running the treatment programs do have a plan and know what’s best, but it’s rarely easy. I spend so much time with my students, and I have to actively work to stop myself from believing that I know what’s best because I’m the expert on them.

In Martha’s case, it all came to a head over the course of a few days.

On a Monday, Martha decided she wanted to sign out of treatment.  That has a variety of consequences, all of them punitive, regardless of whether the decision is best for her or whether her reasons are valid.  Unless she’s so bad she can rate an administrative removal (i.e. she needs to be put in the mental heath unit in Medium), she’ll lose good time, lose any privileges, won’t be able to get a decent job for months, and have to go back to living in General Population and try to deal with her stress there.  It’s a shitty, shitty system and doesn’t support (at all) people who have valid reasons for not being able to stay healthy in that treatment environment.

Martha couldn’t be in that environment and maintain her stability.  When I was asked to speak with her that Monday night, she was still able to hold herself together, and we came up with a plan to help her get through until Friday.  She agreed she could wait until then to sign out, and that it would be good for her to have more time to make sure she was making the best decision.  She did admit to suicidal thoughts, and that she had a history of physical aggression, but felt confident she didn’t want to act on them.

Tuesday brought a series of update emails, and me asking why she wasn’t being considered for an administrative removal.  The answer I got wasn’t very satisfying as it amounted to “she’s not bad enough yet” but, again, nothing I can do.  There is almost no room for true proactivity in here.  Even the most proactive responses can only happen *after* things have gotten bad.  I’m suspicious that one of the reasons treatment allows so few administrative removals and such harsh punishment for signing out has to do with keeping the beds filled, but I have no proof of that and suspicion means nothing in an atmosphere of mistrust and clouded motives.

Martha degenerated rapidly over Tuesday and Wednesday and we were looking at a possible worst-case scenario:  She’d be booted out of the program and sent to segregation, a move almost guaranteed to cause her to try to hurt herself.  Even though she’d been trying to get out of the program and avoid this very thing, having to stay in that environment was making her much, much worse.  After 15 months of working with her and seeing her thrive and stabilize, this was like a fist in the gut.

I felt helpless.  Although I was being included in the decision-making, I felt much more like part of the problem than the solution.  I knew going to treatment was going to be risky, I’d voiced my concerns early, but no one followed up, and now Martha was being dragged under by her internal demons – unleashed by programming that was supposed to help her.  I felt culpable, somehow, as if I’d failed to protect her, or sound the alarm early enough.  Now, in addition to trying to beat back her personal nightmares, she was also in danger of being subject to undeserved punishment for actions brought about by our inability to offer the support she needed.

Wednesday afternoon was jammed with the usual stuff, on top of a series of meetings to discuss what needed to happen with Martha.  By great good fortune, there were several of us advocating for her – that she’d been stable and cooperative, eager to participate and wanting help, until recently.  Although none of us knew exactly what had set off the recent chain of events, it was obvious that her current state was much much worse and she was acting out of fear and desperation.

After much staff discussion, checking with other inmates (some of whom were accusing Martha of aggressive behavior and statements), and consideration of her history, we settled on an administrative removal.  She may also have gotten a conduct order (based on her reported aggression and, in my mind, unnecessarily punitive) but I’m not sure.  That our normally reactive security staff would come to this decision and take time to understand what was happening was a goddamn miracle.  Even if they did hand out a punishment slip, I didn’t care.

Administrative removal meant she was going to go to Medium for at least a few days, to get help de-escalating and calming down, maybe a bit more support in the process.  Given the alternative, there wasn’t a better solution in sight and I’m quite grateful this was the result.  Once I heard this solution was on the table, I left. Martha was waiting in the common area and I sat down to talk with her a bit before going back to the classroom.

Her fear and panic were palpable.  She was barely able to keep from crying as we sat there, and she had obviously lost whatever composure I’d seen earlier in the week.  She knew she was in a bad place, she felt trapped, and even though she didn’t want to lash out, she couldn’t envision anything else.  I couldn’t relieve any of her fears at that moment, but simply sat with my hand on her back, trying to help her feel better for a few minutes.  Even the best-case solution had its consequences, because that’s how the prison system works.

There is almost no room for complexity or nuance.  What people need can be considered, but the solution almost always has to come from a predefined set of offerings – regardless of how well they fit the person as an individual.  We can almost never create something tailored to an individual person, but have to try and fit them into the same solution as everyone else.  DOC does this because it can’t be seen to be favoring one person over another, accommodating some needs and not others, to do something for X without doing the same for Y.

It’s why this system is a failure, and hurts everyone involved.  We’re forced into using tools that don’t fit the job – over and over and over.  We make our best efforts and the fact that some are helped is a credit to our determination and commitment. That more people are damaged and made worse by their time in prison is an ongoing statement about our desperate need for an alternative.

On Guns

Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Peace/Conflict, Power/Privilege, Social Justice, Systems, Uncategorized

I have refrained from writing about guns because it’s hard for me to think about the topic without intense emotion.  Intense emotion can be helpful in writing, but it can also be alienating, resulting in people shutting down and disengaging.  But I need to say these things because I cannot continue sit by and say nothing.

Yesterday, I posted a facetious meme about gun control.  The meme was more about the fallacy of the “ban it” argument than gun control, but someone close to me took to the FB to respond with the “ban cars because drunk people drive them” argument.  I have thought long and hard about that argument, but I couldn’t think of any way to respond productively because it’s an argument based on so much denial and willful blindness that it’s hard to find a common path to discussion.

Let me be clear:  I despise guns.  I hate them, I’m afraid of them, and I wish they had never been invented.  That said, the reality is that they exist, people own them, and there’s nothing I can do about that.  In the interest of a free society, and free will, I understand that there are freedoms we protect even when we don’t agree.  So I won’t make the argument that we need a blanket gun ban, or that individuals shouldn’t be allowed to have them.  It’s not reasonable to expect and impossible to enforce.

But something has to change and using the analogy “ban cars because drunk people drive them and kill people” to argue against the problem of gun violence is ignorant and dismissive of a serious, deadly problem in our country.  Consider the following:

  • A man did not take 26 nooses into an elementary school and hang 20 children and six adults.
  • A man did not drive a car into a theatre and run over people sitting inside.
  • Another man did not drive a car into another theatre and run over more people sitting inside.
  • A man did not take a knife into a church and stab nine people to death.
  • A man did not build a pyre on a military base and tie people to the stake.
  • Another man did not take poison and put it in the water at another military base.
  • A man did not take a baseball bat and beat people to death in a Sikh temple

One of the reasons we have made no progress in coming to a reasonable solution on this issue is because federal funding for research into the causes and impacts of gun violence has been blocked by Congress for the last 20 years.  Even though funding was restored two years ago, the CDC is still tentative and Congress refuses to budget funding.  If we had more information on the causes and impacts of gun violence, maybe we could start to work on solutions, but that isn’t happening.

For me, the comparison between cars and guns isn’t legitimate because cars, and all the other possible weapons listed above, serve a variety of purposes.  That they are temporarily repurposed as weapons isn’t an argument in favor of getting rid of them.  That people get drunk and drive is an argument for people exercising better judgment, more treatment options for people with serious problems, and so on.  It’s not an argument about cars because people who get in a car usually don’t think about it as a weapon, or intentionally set out to harm or kill others.

But all the men who murdered people in the horrific acts mentioned above DID pick up a weapon.  They picked it up, they did it with intention, and they knew exactly what they were doing.  There was no possibility they made a mistake because guns serve no other purpose.  They are designed for killing or harming – it is their sole function and reason for existence on this earth.  When someone picks up a gun with intention to use it, there is no mistake – their intention is to harm or kill.

Their reasoning or motivation for that action may justify their choice and that’s something we must always consider.  But the gun itself may hasten that choice, simply by its nature.  Without having more information on why people decide to pick up a gun, we are presented with the false choice that’s dividing our country.  Responsible individuals are angry and afraid that their rights are being taken away, and other responsible individuals are afraid to go see a movie, go to temple, or simply walk into a church and pray.

The first step in moving toward resolution is acknowledging there is a problem. Guns are a problem in our society, and we need to find a way to work together for our collective health and safety.

Trump, the ultimate male fantasy figure

Blergh, Hard Stuff, Obstacles/Challenges, Power/Privilege, Social Justice, Uncategorized

As many of us have (more than I would have guessed, according to polls) I’ve been thinking about Donald Trump, and this startling wave of publicity he’s riding.  He’s always been one of “those” people – in the news for various things, none of them very positive, most seeming pretty slimy.  His wealth certainly represents one aspect of success, and I’m sure many people see him as a powerful man, but those things don’t explain, for me, why he’s suddenly the front-runner in the GOP’s pack of nominee hopefuls.

So why?  How can a man who is almost a caricature of himself suddenly capture the minds and attention of millions of people?  I think one answer is that he is the ultimate white man’s fantasy persona.  He does and says whatever he wants to – regardless of its impact on other people – and reaps no significant consequences.  He appears to need no significant relationships, have no important emotional attachments that are impacted by his behavior and words, and we know he has all the means he would ever need to support himself.

In short, he’s the ultimate loner and mythic hero figure, at least in the minds of some; a “man’s man” who doesn’t have to be “politically correct” or cater to the needs and whims of all these namby-pamby weepy types who populate the world.  He’s free and able to say exactly what he thinks, do whatever he wants, have whatever women he wants, and buy anything his heart desires.  But where a hero is usually deeply connected to a quest, often a quest to make life better for people who are suffering somehow, Trump only wants to make life (even) better for others like him – über wealthy, privileged, entitled men whose power means they (seem to) answer to no one.

I believe that the men who support him are men who, like him, are terrified of the changes they know are coming.  They see the power structure that has benefited them starting to shift, and they’re having trouble coping (as anyone would). When they hear Trump saying all the vile, hateful, angry things they’re thinking – they’re relieved.  Someone else feels the same way, and someone is actually saying all the things they think but won’t say. I use the word “won’t” deliberately because I think not saying those things is a case of will, not a case of ability.

On some level, I believe many of the men who are so enamored of him right now know that the statements he makes are wrong.  That they are mean, vindictive, hateful, and largely inaccurate.  It’s the difference between being pissed and having a crazed rant inside your head, then getting your shit together and dealing with the problem in a mature fashion, or just standing around calling the other person names, or threatening to punch them in the face.  It’s much easier to just rant and rave and ignore any significant work that needs to be done.

Thinking with nuance, from a variety of perspectives, and acknowledging multiple opinions and needs takes a lot of work and effort.  Screaming angrily about what you don’t understand or care about, the unfairness of it all, and that you don’t want things to change is much, much easier, and Trump is the master of that rhetoric.  He’s the poster boy of the entitled, privileged white male who simply doesn’t acknowledge that all those other water-filled meat sacks are actually human beings.

He seems to just not care.  And that’s why he won’t last.  Because most of those white guys who fantasize about doing what he does know, on some level, that it’s wrong.  Many of them have women they care about, they have friends or colleagues of different ethnic backgrounds, religious affiliations, sexual orientations, and so on.  Most of those men care about hurting someone’s feelings, even if they aren’t aware of that care.  That’s why they don’t actually *say* those things, but live out their fantasy through Trump and men like him.

Even though people are often greedy, petty, and oblivious, I just can’t bring myself to believe that Trump represents anything other than a fleeting moment of vicarious excitement.  I have to believe that the majority of people do care about the feelings of others, even if that care is deeply buried.  I have to believe that mean and spiteful men like Trump don’t truly represent the men (or women) of this country.

GOODFELLAS, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino, Joe Pesci, 1990

GOODFELLAS, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino, Joe Pesci, 1990

No accountability, no consequences.

But, it’s so GOOD for you!

Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

I learned about meditation, over a dozen years ago and kind of practiced regularly for a couple of years.  When I started grad school in 2004, I practiced occasionally and didn’t entirely stop until four or five years after that.  And then I stopped completely, and couldn’t bring myself to continue.  It didn’t matter that I knew it was beneficial, that it would help me feel better and bring peace of mind.  None of those logical things mattered.  My aversion to meditation, or any type of meditative practice was irrational.

I think now that I simply couldn’t (and still can’t, really) bear to be fully present.  I was, and remain, too frightened of the feelings I’ll face.  I’m terrified of all the sadness, exhaustion, depression, anger, grief, disappointment, and bewilderment I know are lying in wait.  I can’t face them more than I already do and have.  Note – please don’t tell me about your “amazing” experience with meditation, how you had the same fears, etc, and how relieved you were that it wasn’t really like that – I don’t want to hear it.  I know my fears are irrational and illogical, but they’re mine and they’re real for me right now.

I’m not sure what my expectations were about what kind of life I would live, but I’m pretty sure I’m not meeting them.  How do I know that?  Because I feel [insert above list of emotions here] all the time.  Those emotions, according to so much of of what I see and hear, are not the indicators of an expectation-meeting life.  Those emotions are giant indicators that you’ve screwed up somehow.

Even though my logical mind knows that thought for the bullshit it is, I can’t stop myself from thinking it.  Even though my life is meaningful and fairly rich, there are still layers of unconscious, unknown expectations I feel like I’m not meeting.  Even writing about it feels ludicrous.  What would I say to someone who came to me with these feelings?  I would say “I hear you and I have many of those same feelings myself.  Would you like to talk?”

Unwarrented foulness

Blergh, Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Uncategorized

Well, I’m in a foul fucking mood today.  I woke up feeling chipper, then chipper grew wings, flew away, and a foul black cloud took its place.  Is there something I’ve obsessed about doing wrong, or felt guilty about, or felt like a failure for?  Yes, there are multitudes of each of these and guess what?  They’re all running rampant down the pathways of my  mind right now.

WTF, chipper feeling?!?!?  Why didst thou flitterest away?? ARGH!

So. Because I am nothing if not determined to call myself a writer, I ungraciously packed my stuff and headed to one of my less-frequented coffee shops.  BIG MISTAKE.  Here’s a tip:  If you’re in the throes of unwarrented black moodiness, GO TO A PLACE WHERE THEY KNOW YOU. If you do that, you won’t get the wrong crappy latte while knowing they have no interest in fixing in for you.

Seriously.  What reasonable coffee shop puts ONE SHOT in a 12 oz latte?!!  ARGHHHH!!  It’s not even about the caffeine.  A one shot 12 oz latte tastes like sweetened milk, not a latte.  GROSS. Plus – they don’t have 12 oz cups, so they put 16 oz worth of milk in there, and DIDN’T REMOVE THE FOAM. So I’m basically drinking a very expensive milk steamer.  ARGH!!!

I swear to whatever deities give a sh*t, I haven’t used this many capital letters in the last eight years.  THE STRUGGLE IS REAL.

trexstruggle

For my black friends

Change/Transformation, Hard Stuff, Obstacles/Challenges, Peace/Conflict, Power/Privilege, Reflection, Social Justice, Systems, Uncategorized, Writing

The names of the victims:  Clementa Pinckney, 41, the senior pastor at the church; Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, an assistant pastor; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Ethel Lance, 70; Susie Jackson, 87; Cynthia Hurd, 54; Myra Thompson, 59; Daniel Simmons Sr., 74; DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49.

There is no good way to write something like this. Everything feels wrong and awkward and pandering, none of it feels quite on point. I grew up in North Carolina, with a few years each in South Carolina and Virginia. Make no mistake, NC and SC are both southern states, with many of the attendant  attitudes, ignorance, and hatreds.

I keep going over what I want to say and it doesn’t get any better. Apologies mean nothing if the same brutal acts keep happening. I can’t keep my black friends and loved ones safe, they can’t keep themselves safe, and a significant portion of our population deliberately pretends not to see the reality of racism, hatred, and domestic terrorism that’s happening.

When President Obama simply mentioning that the suspect had a gun and that, again, access to guns has rendered a terrible result, has a whole chunk of people are angry and screaming about their violated rights. When another group of people simply refuse to acknowledge this hate crime as racially motivated and instead insist that it was an attack on Christians, and proof of the pesecution of Christians, and I am left with my mouth gaping open, jaw swinging in the wind. When these things happen, I am ashamed and embarrassed that I share any human biology with these groups of people.

We just watched the trial of the remaining man involved on the Boston Marathon bombing. We immediately agreed that he was a terrorist, and that his was an act of hatred toward people simply because they were US citizens. He targeted them based on something they couldn’t control, some portion of who they are.

Why are we so fundamentally broken that we won’t even acknowledge this fact in this case? That white man was radicalized and groomed, then sent on a suicide mission to terrorize and kill the people in that church. That he is still alive is almost irrelevant, it’s a physical state only. That depth of depravity can’t leave much alive inside his mind and heart, there is probably only a black, bleak wasteland of hatred and isolation.

There is no way I can apologize for this, no way I can comfort, or reassure, no way I can see to promise it won’t happen again, or that you and your family will be safe. I can continue my work of being an ally, of addressing white people’s issues, and transforming our minds and hearts, but that is cold comfort in moments like this. I have long been in awe of the black community’s capacity for moving forward, and aware that there is so much that, as a white woman, I don’t know and will never know. Maybe one day that will change, and the world will be safe enough for us to share more deeply.

Six days and a wake up

Change/Transformation, Corrections, Hard Stuff, Reflection, Relationships, Uncategorized, Writing

That’s how much time until N, former student and assistant, paroles.  It’s such a bittersweet moment for me, their parole date and all its attendant excitement and anxiety and uncertainty.  The only thing that is certain is that they are leaving, prepared or unprepared, and the nature of our relationship changes with their freedom and newly recovered autonomy.

Now, they have the freedom to stay in relationship or not, and that is as it should be.  We should all have the freedom to choose our relationships but, in prison, that freedom is removed.  Even though I try to be someone they want to listen to and learn from, there’s always the underlying question – would they be doing this if they didn’t have to?  Would they be so cooperative and willing if they had a choice?

Most of them don’t stay in touch when they leave, or they stay in touch only briefly.  That is sad, but I think it is also right.  They need to live their lives and make their choices on their own – rebuild their confidence, and trust in their decisions without my support.  While part of me would love a regular email update, the other part of me thinks “they need to take the lessons they learned and move on, find new teachers and mentors, and create new futures for themselves” and that can mean they completely break their ties with friends and staff.

It’s all part of the ritual of leaving.  The promises to keep in touch that are only sporadically kept, giving away belongings, parties and sharing spreads, making beautiful, elaborate goodbye cards – all sentimentality at its finest.  But the grief is real, the loss is real, even if the gratuitous displays of emotion are a bit much.  I’ve spent so much of my life leaving or being left, and it still feels as if I am standing still, while the person leaving is accelerating away, faster and faster til they’re just a speck in the distance.

I feel a “happy loss,” I suppose.  I understand and accept the change, with both a sense of loss and hope for their better future.

The moon rises

Corrections, Hard Stuff, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

Some mornings when I enter the parking lot, the full moon perches on the tip of a silhouetted pine – enormous and pale, gray and ephemeral.  Over the gatehouse and Medium security buildings, it is unseen, and unappreciated.  In the Minimum security facility, when sunrise is late and sunset is early, the women may catch a glimpse of the moon and early stars in the moments it takes to walk between buildings.

With October, evening yard comes to a close.  During the winter months, there is no chance to see the night sky. Overhead, there are clouds or rain, and the purpling buzz of flourescent lights.  If they are lucky, people living in prisons see the sky during approved daylight hours, but only then.

Women incarcerated in the Medium facility are restricted to sunlit hours.  The few daily hours of yard time happen while the sun rides high.  Shining bright, or clouded and dim, it looms in the blue or gray air, defining the limited outdoor environment.

There are no opportunities to view the sunset or sunrise, or the times in between. Their entire physical world is contained in one building, where they walk and walk; the same glossy gray floors and unchanging beige corridor. Women who spend their years in Medium custody will likely never see silvery moonlight, or midnight blue sky.  There are no walks in soft twilight or twinkling star-crusted nights.

The loss of these simple pleasures, the gentle indigo of evening and blushing rose of morning, is just another in the endless litany of losses, never-ending and ever-present through their time in prison.

The  freedom to walk when and where we choose is always deeply wound with laws, boundaries, social mores, and decisions about safety, but this is what it is like to lose that freedom entirely.

The moon transforms into a ghostly memory, floating above razor wire coils, no longer part of the world they know.

wpid-img_20140909_071858.jpg

Don’t worry, I won’t

Hard Stuff, Peace/Conflict, Social Justice, Uncategorized

For a while now, service men and women have been talking/not talking about the whole “thank you for your service” bit.  You know, the one where Person X realizes Person Y served in one of our endless wars and claps them on the shoulder with a hearty “Thank you for your service!”  That one?

Well, vets aren’t buying it, in part because they see it as an easy way for people to avoid truly understanding their sacrifices and suffering.  They’re probably right – it IS an easy way for people to feel like they’ve done something, liking or sharing a post or passing along a petition.  It’s ephemeral action, prompted by vague sensations of obligation and guilt.  But it’s over quickly and life goes on badda bing, badda boom. I’m not sure what would constitute a proper “thank you,” I’m not sure there is one.

It’s almost a certainty that I’ll never thank a vet for their service because I’m not convinced that the US government sending women and men to kill and die is something I want to thank anyone for.  That I know of, no one ever thanked my father for his service and his service ultimately killed him.  A slow, lingering, wasting, psychotic death, courtesy of Agent Orange and decades of untreated PTSD. Agent Orange ate his body, while PTSD gnawed his heart and mind.  He died several years ago – sick, angry, sad, afraid, and alienated from his family.

Thank you, US government and taxpayers, for sending my father to your service. Thank you, US government and taxpayers, for treating him, and the other boys you sent to die in Vietnam, like pieces of shit when they came back.  Thank you, US government and the VA, for forcing him to wait YEARS before acknowledging his exposure to Agent Orange and all the resulting physical illness.  Thank you, US government for not having a safety net in place for him, and tens of thousands of men like him, so they didn’t die or go insane under the weight of grief and trauma and rage and fear from everything they experienced in that horrifying war.

There is my thank you, service people.  It’s the only thank you I can imagine offering.

I don’t thank people for their military service because those words simply don’t make sense to me.  I know millions of people think our military keeps us safe, and stops all those “Others” from invading our country and killing us in our sleep.  Our military keeps us “safe” by doing exactly that to people in other countries – to people who don’t look like us, don’t eat what we eat, don’t believe what we believe.  I won’t say I believe any of those people deserve to die – any more than our soldiers deserve to be sent to kill and die.  I don’t believe my safety demands they be indoctrinated with a mindset that builds towering barriers between Them and Us.

I’ve watched the US clench itself into a fist of fear and anger and confusion and grief over the last 13 years, long years since 9/11.  I’ve watched us become more and more divided over issues fundamental to our humanity, issues that used to define us as a nation.  I’ve watched us become more and more suspicious, lashing out in wide-eyed fear and mistrust.  The few who speak out against this reactive behavior are often crucified, because terror holds no room for differences of opinion.

I grew up in a military family.  I spent the first 18 years of my life on military bases, moving around, following my father to his next station.  I watched him die as a result of his service to his country.  So to all those men and women who don’t want me to thank them for their service, don’t worry – I won’t.