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

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

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

Working the seams

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

Since I’m on a Seth Godin roll, I’ll mention that his blog about seams struck a chord.  It resonated because we try so desperately to hide our seams.  Major life transitions – unemployment, aging, death, marriage, childbearing, illness – they’re all seams, ruptures in the glassy, smooth life we envision.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I’m in one of those big transitions, and struggle with how to feel and how to present myself publicly.  I often wonder how different our lives would be if we could acknowledge the seams more openly, not feel shamed or embarrassed that we’ve hit a rough patch, or a season of change.

Octavia Butler, in Sower of the Talents and Parable of the Talents creates a religion (Earthseed) based on change.  Its premise is that change is the only sure thing.  The central verse of Earthseed is given in the following:

============================

Consider: Whether you’re a human being, an insect, a microbe, or a stone, this verse is true.

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change.

(Parable of the Sower, Octavia E. Butler)

The central paradox of Earthseed is:

Why is the universe?
To shape God.

Why is God?
To shape the universe.

(Parable of the Sower, Octavia E. Butler)

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While I don’t ascribe to any religion, I find these verses comforting.  Accepting change (and death) as the only constant can be useful.  Cultivating flexibility, resilience, and curiosity in the face of surprising events is the best strategy I’ve seen for managing change.

Pema Chodron talks about how the sticky nature of the unexpected can be a tar pit when we fasten ourselves to a specific vision or result.  I’m not Buddhist, and I don’t claim unattachment to outcomes.  Outcomes do matter to me, no matter how much I wish they didn’t, and I find myself struggling with the tar more often than not.  I believe the best I can hope from myself is to work to create several outcomes, even if I prefer one over another.

The verses say that god exists to shape change, but they don’t give us a definition of god.  I like to believe we are all extensions of the living awareness of the Universe, which means we are all part of that life, however you conceive it to be.  So shaping change is part of who we are, part of our work in being.  Some days, remembering that is helpful, some days, not so much.

change-alone-is-unchanging-quote-1

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

The Launch

Art/Images, It's Personal, Life, Uncategorized, Wins

I’ve finally done it, I’ve launched my Etsy store!  I have a small selection of drawings available, but am looking forward to adding more. Other than this blog, the Etsy store is my first time putting my creative talents out for public consumption.  For any of my two or three readers who are willing, I appreciate any reblogs or shares 🙂

Energy-WtrMrk

Is she gay?

It's Personal, Laughter, Life, Uncategorized, Writing

This is a question that has hovered around me for years and I’m finally amused enough to put my thoughts in writing.  I’ve been mistaken for a man a couple of times – once by a police officer who pulled me over for speeding (yes, I was speeding) but hurriedly backed off after calling me “sir” and realizing I wasn’t a “sir.”  Another time, a waitress walked up to our booth and, seeing only the back of my head, called me “sir,” then fumbled around correcting her mistake.  In both of these cases, it seemed that their mistake was most likely caused by my short hair and broad shoulders, which they saw only from behind and when I was seated.

Cause, honestly, there ain’t no damn way I could be mistaken for a man otherwise, regardless of my sexual orientation.  For people who don’t know me IRL, there’s just a smidgen too much packed in the trunk up front to ever be mistaken for male anatomy. But back to the question at hand “Is she gay?” The answer is…

None of your fucking business. Literally.  Who I fuck is none of your business.

I don’t care about the question, I don’t care that people ask it, or that they can’t pin down whether I prefer boys or girls or turtles or leather couches.  In fact, I often go out of my way to cloud the issue.  I’m an equal opportunity flirt, sometimes an equal opportunity snuggler and hugger and hand-holder.  I love my female friends and male friends equally, and am equally physically affectionate.  I dance as a follow and a lead, and I’m not squeamy about other ladies’ boobs touching my boobs, or getting sexy when leading someone – male or female.

In short – I don’t care what other people think about my orientation.  The only reason my orientation should ever be your business is if you want to ask me out.  If that’s the case, ask and I’ll say yes or no and maybe that will be based on my orientation and maybe it won’t.  I find it flattering when anyone thinks I’m compelling and attractive enough to want to go out with, and if I’m not interested, I’ll let you know right up front.

I realize this makes some people uncomfortable, but that isn’t about my choices or behavior, or even my appearance.  It’s about their discomfort when they can’t put me in a category, or definitively label me this or that.  As I write this, I realize that everyone who has ever defied gender stereotypes has probably said the same thing.  I feel a little like a fake because I’m not sure I’m defying anything, I just don’t think it’s anyone’s business and I’m secure enough in my sexual identity to not need anyone else’s approval or understanding.

I also approach this the same way I approach dancing.  If I only ever follow or only ever lead, I miss out on 50% of all the best dancers and that’s a LOT of missed opportunity.  The same is true in this aspect of my life – if I focus all my desire for physical contact not only to one sex, but confined strictly to the *realm* of sexual activity, I miss out on 50% of all the best hugs and friend snuggles.  That’s a high percentage of loss and hey, I’m not a loser.

Graging?

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

I’ve been trying to think of a word that combines aging with grace, and came up with the post title – graging.  Now that I see it, it could also be a combination of “rage” and “gray”, which are also part of aging, although not exactly what I had in mind.  It’s a weird word, a fake word, clumsy and ugly.  Maybe it’s the perfect word to describe how most of us increase our years, and all those moments when we say to ourselves “Is this what it feels like to be X yrs old?  I don’t feel X yrs old.”

Isn’t is amusing how the only people talking about the process of aging are those of us who are “of a certain age?”  When we’re in our twenties and thirties, we are most definitely NOT thinking about our upcoming years of graging, except in terms of retirement funds.  I know this is true because I’m close enough to my thirties that I can remember NEVER thinking about what my forties would be like!

I think it’s a psychological development.  We hit some level in our biological development and bam!  we’re suddenly pondering the nature of life, our contributions and legacy, our vulnerability, and what the end of our lives might be like.  It’s a curious paradox that our society and culture disregard our elders, fetishize youth, and yet every. single. one of us will grow old and die.  It’s one of the very few absolute givens in human existence – we, you, I, will grow older and eventually die.

I’m writing this piece more as a way to inject some humor in this process for myself, because I can’t even describe how vulnerable and alone and afraid I feel sometimes.  I can’t because thinking about it too much crushes my spirit and darkens my light, and I need a way to acknowledge my fears without letting them own me.  So maybe the word “graging” will now symbolize those parts of growing older I find both familiar and uncomfortable – the fear and anger, loneliness and uncontrollable changes – things we all struggle with most of our lives.

Naming a thing makes it less scary, in part because it makes it more real.  Perhaps the real key to growing in grace is realizing and accepting that all of these parts are inevitable and unavoidable, and that the best I can do is be kind to myself when they show up.  Kindness and grace don’t combine easily into a fun word, probably because they’re both so deserving of separate attention. There are no shortcuts to either of these states – they take courage, work, heart, and intention.

I feel better now.  Graging over.

Down and Left

Dance, It's Personal, Laughter, Reflection, Uncategorized

I’m a social dancer, have been for 10 years or so.  My go-to is salsa, but I dance all the latin dances (street style, not ballroom), a smidge of tango, a whisper of east coast swing, and a generous, juicy dollop of blues.  As most women do, I started by learning to follow.  As most women don’t, I got bored with following and learned to lead.  Actually, blues dancing taught me that if you don’t want to miss out on half of all the great dancers, you better learn to lead.

The experimental, fluid nature of blues dancing lends itself well to lead-swapping, so I spent several years learning how to connect, and lead all different types of movement. This has served me well in all my dancing, but especially bachata.  Bachata, for me, has more room to experiment and play, so that’s what I do.  I stay loosely within the choreography, but enjoy experimenting, playing, and seeing what my lead (or follow) will do next.

But I digress.

Tonight, Wednesday, was bachata night at the main local spot.  I rarely go out during the week, but I was able to go out tonight and it was one of the best dance nights I’ve had in months.  Months and months.  Why was tonight so special?  Because not only did I get probably a dozen great dances (as a lead and follow), I got to pass along an excellent piece of advice a friend gave me several years ago.  Ready?

Stop looking down.

If you’re a social dancer, you know what I’m talking about.  You’ve done it, you’ve danced with people who do it, we’re all guilty.  We get into the music and we find ourselves looking down and slightly left – maybe at our feet.  That’s the position our eyes take when we’re remembering feeling, smelling, tasting – anything kinesthetic.  It’s a comfy place – we’re jamming out, our body is moving, and our eyes are probably glazed, down and left.  But there’s something off about that whole scene, my dancing peeps probably already know – there is no way to connect with your dance partner if your eyes are pointed at the floor.

And the whole point of social dancing is to connect to someone else, through a shared experience of music and movement.  That WILL NEVER HAPPEN if we don’t stop looking down.  Looking down also means our energy is directed into the ground – not up or forward or out or around – down into the earth.  The earth doesn’t mind, but our dancing and our ability to connect suffer from our narrow range of focus.

So among many other lovely moments, I had the opportunity to do something I rarely do on the dance floor – I gave some advice.  I gave it in the form of compliment and a request (you have a beautiful smile.  if you dance with me, I’d love it if you’d look up and share that smile with me) or something like that.  Then, I made it into a private joke.  If he looked down too long, I’d find a way to trail my fingers into his line of sight and up popped his eyes – big smile and dimple at the ready.  Lavish compliments, big smiles and laughter, flirting and keeping the eye contact – all wonderful tools that everyone thoroughly enjoys.

I am so grateful.  He is a dancer of enormous talent and potential, still young, and I’m so grateful he was willing and eager to listen, and to push himself out of that comfy spot.  Each time we danced, it got better.  He admitted it felt awkward, but that’s what happens when you’re doing something different that’s going to change your dance life – it’s awkward for a while and then it settles and the world unfolds again.

When dancing as a follow, it is always a risk to ask a lead to do something different.  Leading on the social floor is so hard, and it’s ridiculously easy to accidentally crush someone’s confidence.  On the floor, I make a practice of staying away from anything that seems like teaching or coaching, but sometimes, it’s the right thing to do.  One of the biggest joys of being part of the dance scene for such a long time is seeing different dancers grow and progress and change over the years.  Knowing that my support and encouragement has been part of that process is icing on the cake.

So get those eyes up, people, up and forward – 1 2 3, 5 6 7!

 

 

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.

Conversations with Life, #1

Creative, It's Personal, Life, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

Life,

My name is M and I’m a middle-aged single woman who chose not to have children.  I have a wonderful group of friends, work I care about and am good at, access to lots of social activities, a living wage job with an ethical employer, and a safe, beautiful place to live.  As I type all those things, I wonder why the hell I’m writing you, but I’m doing it anyway because I feel trapped and dissatisfied and I need guidance.

Feeling trapped and dissatisfied, in turn, makes me feel like a bad, ungrateful person so let’s say right now, for all future conversations, I’m grateful for what I have, but I want more.  I crave more, and I’m trying to create a path that integrates gratitude and desire.

How do I do that?

Dear M,

I don’t know.  No one does.  All the big brains and hearts and voices have been trying to figure it out since you had more than one cell to rub together.  Remember, I’m only an anthropomorphic idea you decided to write to, I don’t know much beyond what you know, but I’ll offer you this image:

When I look at a person, I don’t see the physical body that you see.  What I see is a light surrounded by an infinite number of intricate layers – like those Chinese lanterns with all the patterns?  Those are all meshed together – thick, thin, lacy, solid, dark, light, permeable, fluid, rigid, and so on.  The light shines out, but it has to make its way through all those layers, through the little chinks and cracks where the gaps line up.

Every so often, everything lines up perfectly and a lot of light gets out – that’s when you get those transcendent pieces of creation or messages that endure and survive and inspire for hundreds and hundreds of years.

I’m telling you this because the desire you feel is to shine more of that light.  You crave the sensation of having more and more clear space for that inner light to expose itself, to shine on the world around you.  It’s what all humans want – it’s the reason you are here.

There is no difference in experiencing immense gratitude for the light that already shines, and desiring more of the same.  That desire is what leads you forward, and inspires you to be more fully yourself.  And that is where the magic happens.

Always,

Life

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.

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?”

Milestoning

It's Personal, Novelicious, Uncategorized, Writing

Today is…important, I think.  I sent the first 4000 words of my novel to my first readers.  I’ve sent bits and pieces to folks over the last few months, but this is a solid, cohesive chunk of the book.  I know, in my mind, that this is a “big deal,” but the feelings probably won’t set in until I hear back from…The Readers.

I suppose what I’m thinking is normal.  That I wrote too much, was rambling and chaotic, pedantic and pontificating, and generally couldn’t organize one spoon in an empty drawer. The piece that gnaws at me most is that I’m not writing a purely academic piece or doing a literature review, but it would be easy to fall into that trap.  It would be easy to drop into academic mode, but it wouldn’t be good.  And, ultimately, I would be bored.

But putting forth an idea grown out of my own brain, with no formal research or literature propping it up is scary.  I worry if it’s already out there somewhere, or if it’s just pure bullshit.  The people I’ve shown it to so far love it and believe it’s important, and I do too. I feel pretty satisfied so far – I think I’ve done a far job for a first pass.  But the sense of urgency is strong and now that I have a sense of the process, I’m impatient to keep moving.

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

Lost threads

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

I’m so frustrated right now I could [insert action indicating frustration here]. June was a bad writing month.  I did get some good writing, but it was sporadic and scattered.  What I’m discovering is that if I don’t write regularly, I lose the thought threads that bind the larger story.  It feels impossible to sit down after three weeks away and do anything constructive in 30 minutes.  Hell, doing anything constructive in 30 minutes seems impossible anyway, so I don’t know why I bothered.

I just feel pissed at myself.  Pissed because I let a month slip away and the feelings of urgency, of “this needs to be in the world NOW!” are crowding out all my other thoughts.  Even when I schedule out writing time, I’m lucky if I can get a good 60-90 minutes, which seems so little.  When I read about artists and writers who spend hours and hours daily working, working, working, I feel small and cowardly – as if I’m not making a big enough sacrifice for my art.

I imagine I’m not the only one who feels like this, though.  Those of us who have day jobs, families, obligations, etc etc, probably struggle with this to some degree, but it sucks.  I can feel this piece of work trying desperately to get out, and I’m just not doing it the service it deserves today.

Who’s promoting what?

Feminism, It's Personal, Rants, Social Justice, Uncategorized

If “fat” people wearing bikinis are promoting obesity, aren’t slender people wearing bikinis promoting eating disorders?  When I I watched this video and the lovely young narrator said that people have actually told her that her body, in a bikini, promotes obesity, I was speechless.

In a world where thin-ness is worshiped as a religion, the beauty and diet industries rake in billions of dollars yearly, a young, fat woman in a bikini is the problem?  Why is no one on public beaches screaming about thin people and how their bathing suit clad skinniness is causing eating disorders?!  If you want to be all science-y about it, there’s probably at least as much evidence that the pursuit of the “thin ideal” causes eating problems as there is that fat girls in bikinis promote obesity.

There is just so much wrong with both of these pictures I don’t know even know how to start.  Well, that’s a lie, I do know.  Where we start is by saying all this bullshit about fatness and skinniness and ideal beauty is exactly that – bullshit.  If I accept someone’s judgment about my body, some external bogus description, then I accept there is some ideal, set by some mysterious “something” and I’m not meeting it.

Fuck. That.

I’ve spent far too much time in my life hating my body for no good reason.  I’m fortunate that I didn’t hate myself enough to develop an eating disorder, harm myself, or give it all up and decide to live on cookies and kool-aid.  I’m lucky that I was able to struggle through a bunch of personal work and come out thinking that my body’s pretty great – healthy, strong, flexible, attractive, and doing a bang up job of getting me through life.  But hell – it took me most of my life to get here and I’m not 35 anymore.

I see so many women who expend SO much time, energy, and intellect fighting their bodies, and I feel so much grief and anger for all of us.  It’s all a distraction – a way to keep us focused inward, fighting each other and scrambling for crumbs, instead of holding each other up, and using our gifts and talents to make our world more wonderful. It’s a distraction and we’ve accepted it – we’ve internalized it to the point that we use it to put ourselves down.  No one else needs to bother, we do it all on our own.

I’m not buying it.  I don’t buy the labels, the sizes, the judgments, none of it.  No, you don’t look fat to me.  No, you don’t look flat-chested, or thick-waisted, or dumpy or short or lanky.  You look beautiful.  Focus on your health, be well mentally and emotionally, take care of yourself physically, but determine your own beauty.  Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t look stunning in a bikini.

Twitter-fied

Change/Transformation, Feminism, It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Peace/Conflict, Social Justice, Uncategorized, Writing

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I feel confused most of the time.  This constant confusion is a result of an ongoing and bewildering mixture of wondrous, joyous, human decency with stomach-churning vileness, and moments of deep, personal sadness.  I find it impossible to determine whether I’m merely “having a rough few days/weeks/months” or if (as the beautiful, late Stephen Covey put it), I’m simply experiencing the “permanent whitewater” this shapes our lives in this time.

I believe that most of my bewilderment comes from a mental picture of my past as a more calm and stable period but I also know that probably isn’t true.  Even if it were, it all began to change in 1998 (17 years ago, almost a third of my life now) and hasn’t been “calm” since.  Everything I read tells me that most people experience some amount of upheaval throughout their 20s and 30s, and that shit really gets tough in the 40s.  But I can’t shake this nagging suspicion that somehow, this is a result of me making wrong choices, that I’ve somehow brought it, whatever “it” is, on myself.

So that’s  my personal baggage, this belief that I’m simply incapable of creating some idealistic, perfect, shining life where I make only the best decisions and experience only the best outcomes.  And yes, as I wrote that, my eyes nearly rolled out of my head.  It’s astonishing sometimes, how writing down the words in my head highlights their obvious silliness.  But….onward.

Today, despite my personal griefs and hiccups and grouchiness, looking through my Twitter feed brought my feet, head, heart, and hands into a smiling, happy place.  All the posts about the two recent SCOTUS decisions, big wins for Obama and the citizens of the US, rainbows and hearts everywhere, more scorchingly incredibly quotes from the Notorious RBG, the incredible bravery and grace of Bree Newsome taking down the Confederate flag, reminded me that things are not always going to hell in a very, very small container.

Today I am reminded that people can be brave and generous and kind and loving, at least for a few moments.  It is true that there are many, many people who feel the opposite about all of these events but for the moment, I’m not thinking of them.  I’m thinking about all my dear friends whose marriages will now be recognized in the entire country, all my students who will be able to get and afford healthcare after they parole, the women who look to Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1993), Sonia Sotomayor (2009), and Elena Kagan (2010) as glorious role models and shining feminist spirits, and now, to Bree Newsome, whose act of nonviolent civil disobedience helps mark our ongoing struggle to address the deep wounds of racism in the US.

Thank you, Twitterverse, for making my soul lighter and my day better.

CIhPMuzUMAEgtxQ

The Way Forward

It's Personal, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

10310982_10100381544808361_3799564650207924689_n

Is this.  This is the first picture of my manuscript, such as it is.  My friend Cindy told me that this is what they all look like in the beginning – highlighted, penned, tabbed, glued, taped, and post-it-noted everywhichway.

When I began thinking of writing a book, I had no idea what that process would be – emotionally, logistically, physically, mentally – none of it.  I’d never written anything longer than 20-25 pages (grad school, obvs) and ended up not even writing a thesis.  But the feeling that this is the right path, the way forward, was never in question.  This has happened before – where the choice is a given, but the path is unseen – and it has always proven harder, richer, and more meaningful than I could have imagined.

In a way, this piece of writing is the thesis I never wrote.  I didn’t write it when I finished school, but the desire to write about peace education, a pedagogy of peace, has driven me for years.  Now, I have what I didn’t have then – experience.  Finding the academics is the easy part.  Putting them into a practical, useful context is the more difficult, almost impossible part.  Without the experience of the last several years, I would have just been another idealist producing a precious piece of writing that had no deep grounding in reality, or in anyone’s lived experience.

Now, though, I’ve been able to experience, to feel and live so much of the theory, and see what makes a difference and what doesn’t.  I’ve felt for years that I had something to add to this field, and I’m overwhelmed every time I go back and read some of the pieces I’ve written.  That may sound narcissistic, but I’ve never had the experience of channeling the creative, then going back and saying “did I really write this?” because surely nothing that profound came from my mind…

It’s not always easy – there are times where I hear someone else talking about something similar, or saying something incredibly articulate and thoughtful, and I think “What do I possibly have to say to add to that?” But I know that self-doubt is part of the process, and the important thing is to keep working regardless of the monkey blathering in my ears.  So I look at this picture often, and think about how hard the last few years have been.  If I went through all that so I can be here, now, creating this piece of work – there’s no way but forward.

Shite happens.

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

tangle-of-wires

Unfortunately, it seems to be all that’s happening.  I’ve been distracted for the last couple of weeks, writing minimally, attention on other things.  It’s shocking how quickly that slight shift in focus has torn up my writing rails, twisting them into and out of recognizable shapes, drops, detours, and giant iron cobbles.

I assume this is part of the process, this disgust with my thoughts, words, inaction, distraction, and disorganization.  Perhaps I’m being rendered, fat and proteins separated into sloppy, sloshy piles for me to paw through, when I eventually re-orient toward….something.  Let’s hope the end product is better than a can of pet food.

Behind the Curtain

Change/Transformation, It's Personal, Laughter, Leadership, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

I’ve been interested in leadership – theory and practice – and in various styles of leadership for many years.  Recently, I’ve been exploring the structure of Servant Leadership and have found that most of what I teach my students falls directly into this framework.  Not only do I take a Servant Leadership approach, I teach them to be Servant Leaders.  I don’t discuss it in those terms, but I train them in listening, compassion, kindness, supporting others, empathy, foresight, and care for the world.  I’m training them, hoping to seed the world with these budding humans.

It’s amusing, the internal conflicts that arise from considering myself a Servant Leader, amusing and sometimes aggravating.  As an ambitious, intelligent, and talented professional, I want credit for my work – I want to be acknowledged for my accomplishments, my dedication, and my passion.  But Servant Leadership is about leading from behind and beside, commitment to the growth of others, and not so much about being the star.

So where does this leave me?  Struggling between wanting acknowledgement and internalizing an approach that focuses on strengthening and developing others, it seems.  But even as my internal conflict sputters along, I know that I have chosen the right path, and that my desire for personal glory is fleeting compared to building resilient, compassionate human beings.  If asked how I manage my craving for personal acknowledgment with continuing to work as a servant leader, I don’t know what I would say.

Even writing a blog post about it feels uncomfortable – calling attention to myself in an un-servant-like way.  But it is true – I consider myself in this way and most of my decisions about what to do and how to do it come from this paradigm.  Writing this post feels awkward and uncomfortable, as it should.  I’m acknowledging my sticky, prickly human nature, and bringing her out from behind the curtain.

Consumed

It's Personal, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

At the beginning of the year, I made the decision to get serious about writing.  I committed to pruning away activities and projects that didn’t support my goal of becoming a successful, published author.  Even though I have only myself to care for, this has still proven surprisingly difficult.  I have great capacity for work, and love taking on volunteer projects, networking, and generally spending time in my community.  The decision to step away is still working itself through, and I’m beginning to understand why intentional dedication to a craft can provoke intense loneliness.

It is hard, here in the beginning, to feel hope.  I feel alone, unskilled, overwhelmed by the process of capturing and creating experience, and uncertain about the outcome of anything.  I have no formal background in writing, haven’t read dozens of writers’ autobiographies or biographies, but I have the sense that this feeling – untethering from the familiar and retethering to the work – is something many have known.

What is surprising and sometimes frightening is that I can’t stop.  Even when I want to call someone and make plans, or get more involved in a project, or simply do something else, I find that I can’t.  I don’t want to be out late because I lose the mornings and that’s my best writing time.  I guard my time, making few commitments, and those with lots of padding so they won’t interfere with my creative space.  I keep my schedule clear so I can write when the urge hits me, I carry a notebook around everywhere, and use my phone to send notes and descriptions of dreams to myself at 2 in the morning.

This may sound familiar to some, but it is new territory for me.  I’m lucky, I suppose, my sense of urgency is manageable and I can maintain my life, even with some balance.  I’m lucky in that I’m not driven to self-destruction, or to hurt others, or to isolate myself from humanity and drink my own urine to survive.  But the iron hand does live inside the velvet glove and now I can’t go to sleep if I haven’t written.

Writing by the light of my phone

It's Personal, Uncategorized, Writing

Once, recovering from a break up, I woke up at 2:39 a.m., almost crying.  I’d just had a bunch of confusing dreams about using a malfunctioning toilet installed in someone’s couch, while everyone was hanging around and chatting.  Of course, the toilet malfunctioned, I woke up, and these four poems were born.

I wrote the first one on my phone, because I couldn’t think where I left my paper and pen (right by the bed, of course).  I wrote it in an email to myself, in a dark room with only the eye-burning light of my phone screen and a bunch of stupid autocorrects.  2:51 a.m., done, light off, head back on the pillow. Number two promptly shows up and I reach for the phone again.  I respond to my first email, with the second poem, starting an odd call-and-response email chain with myself.  Four poems later, it’s 3:35 a.m. and I’m done.  I’m transcribing them here, with little editing, because I think the first drafts are usually most real.

Why am I blogging about this?  Because I learned an extraordinary thing – I learned, finally, what I’d always heard:  that poetry is what you use to express feelings that don’t truly have words.  I’ve never been a poetry girl, prose is my gig, so this is a Big Deal.  I finally understand that sometimes, telling a story or writing a reflection or observation simply doesn’t cut the mustard.  Sometimes, you have to use words to shape something that has no shape or color or smell, nothing except itself, surging through your being.

I do not fancy myself a poet, but experience made me feel like one.

Rocks in the water

It's Personal, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

And she said

“I’m tired and, and I can’t tell anyone why.  It’s a tired that wells down to the bottom of my soul, a tired that has nothing to do with my shell, my physical home.  It’s the tired of carrying an endless, invisible burden that can never be relinquished, the tired of opening and shutting, opening and shutting.  It’s the tired that sips and sips until there is nothing left to drink from the well that should never run dry, the tired that comes from taking out all the paints, then putting them away again, dry and stiff.  It’s the tired of holding steady against the never-ending assault, the onslaught of drudgery and sadness, the tired of repetitive repeating repeated repeats.

I can’t tell anyone why because it’s the tired of a being on this planet, in this time, in this moment.  It’s carrying around the burden of need and want and desire and fear and hate and anger, the weight of  the grindstone of life.

They tell me there is a balance, I hear voices say “find your center, find your ground, everything will fall into place once you are more balanced.” When I hear those voices, I envision myself with a rock, pounding laundry in the river, the water washing and running and dragging the wet cloth behind.  Rocks, pounding on rocks, endlessly rushing water soothing weary clothes.  The clothes are clean, the water doesn’t notice.

I hear that Beauty (with a capital) makes all things Better (also with a capital).  I have yet to Believe in  such magical nonsense.  Magic, opiate of the Believers.  Sometimes, I wish I did.  Believe.  Or not Believe.  Would that Beauty would work such magic for me, such magic that the weight of human beingness would be somehow different, would lighten instead of leaven.”

She sat down, in the river, and picked up a rock.

Middle Age

Change/Transformation, It's Personal, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

The exquisitely edged path of middle age runs between regretting what I haven’t done and embracing the new paths of my life.

Looking back, my heart droops for all those lost opportunities of youth – adventure, exploration, burning and freezing love, children, family roots, backpacks, oil and brushes, typewriters, endless reams of paper covered with ink in meaningful shapes, fantastic voyages, sick beats, pointe shoes, leotards, Julliard, glow sticks, lollipops and suckers, judo, and flying.  I mourn my lost fearlessness, so rarely used, belief in my own immortality, blind idealism, insatiable curiosity about everything, boundless and endless hope in humanity.

I miss my childish eyes and youthful heart.

Forward is different, an unfamiliar and awkward adjustment in thinking and being.  I long for the undiscovered country of grace, wisdom, gentle silver beauty, vibrant color and sounds that thrill.  I feel my heart open to the warmth of intimate gatherings, happy dancing friends, food and growing things, exploring unknown areas where words and music and illusion meet, thrive, and move, a world of complexity and chaos, a world that needs us to care for each other above all.

I welcome my soft eyes and gentle heart.

Oblivia in Portlandia

It's Personal, Power/Privilege, Rants, Systems, Uncategorized

I moved to Portland in 2004 and couldn’t believe I was living in the same country. Everything here was different – strange and unfamiliar.  The architecture was different, the trees, plants, culture, streets, food, clothing, everything.  The one familiar sight was cigarettes.  When I saw my first smoker, I was shocked.  My only explanation for my shock is that I had completely unfounded expectations that Portland was a healthy, green-y kind of place, a place I would never expect to see cigarettes.

I was tempted to walk up to the smoker, grab the cigarette, and say “you don’t live in a tobacco-producing state, why are you smoking?” but I didn’t.  It took about a month before that urge went away, but it did and now I only notice smokers in order to walk up wind.  But I digress, so let me get to the heart of the matter:  Portland and its educated, concerned, oft-oblivious denizens.

There are times when living here is wonderful, but there are also times when I wish I were the size of a planet so I could give Portland the proper level of side-eye.  I’m talking about a city with a culture of self-awareness and social justice that goes about an inch deep – enough so that people feel a proper sense of outrage, donate money or clothes, maybe write a letter to the editor, march in a protest or sign a petition, Share or Like a Facebook post, and feel like they’ve done their part to throw a wrench in the machine, stand up to The Man, and support social justice.

By comparison, people here probably are more aware and more involved, so why do I say they’re oblivious?  A couple of years ago, a friend invited me to the symphony at the Arlene Schnitzer concert hall downtown.  The symphony is, almost by definition, a middle/upper class experience.  It’s usually spendy, the music is more appealing to a certain level of cultural literati, and there are expectations around clothing and appearance. [Yes, I know this isn’t *always* true, but it’s true enough]

So.  We’re sitting in hard, tiny seats, kind of squashed up on the people near us, getting ready to enjoy some type of musical performance.  This was just after Occupy Wall Street began, maybe early 2012.  A woman came onstage to go over the program and introduce the conductor and then, I’ll never forget this moment, then she said “Occupy the Schnitz!” and the audience roared with approval.

What. The. Everloving. Fuck?

Did no one but me see the phenomenal irony in a theater full of symphony-goers, many in (at least) the top 5-10% of Portland’s wage-earners, yelling in support of a movement challenging individual accumulation of so much wealth and the means used for such accumulation?

My mouth fell open and my eyes almost rolled out of my head.  Here was the epitome of the Portland paradox. [Portland paradox:  people who are simultaneously self-aware and interested in “issues,” but have minimal interest, desire, or motivation to critically examine their behavior or its impact on the very “issues” they support.]

I’m sure the people in the theater meant well, but did any of them go home and immediately divest themselves of stocks in those financial institutions responsible for the economic devastation?  Did they quit buying from businesses with sketchy practices, or doing business with all those unconvicted Wall Street criminals?  Did they go to shareholder meetings and demand accountability from CEOs and top decision-makers?  If they were CEOs, did they immediately take an inventory of their business practices and make sure they’re doing right by their employees and their communities?

Who knows?  I doubt anyone but me even remembers that evening.

The Thing About Loneliness

It's Personal, Uncategorized, Writing

Is that it’s always waiting.  After all the wonderful gatherings with friends and people I love are over, the loneliness is there.  It doesn’t show up immediately, and it doesn’t show up every time but, inevitably, it comes home.  The small places are where loneliness seeps in and lingers, defining the holes with its ephemeral presence.  The spaces never fill because loneliness can never fill anything.

By its nature, loneliness only increases. It never decreases voluntarily, or by itself.  The best I’ve been able to do is to appreciate the moments when the holes are smaller.  I try not to notice when they’re bigger, but sometimes, it’s so hard.  The unimportant times – going shopping, getting groceries, having to handle everything in my life by myself, getting the oil changed, going for a walk, cooking dinner, all the in-between times.

The time couples take for granted, the times I took for granted when I was part of a couple – those are the holes.  There are so many thoughts that run in and out of my mind, questions about what I want or don’t want, what my life is going to look like and be, what options I have or don’t have.  They serve as helpful distractions, most of the time, but the holes remain.

Standing In Line

It's Personal, Uncategorized, Writing

Today I was at Powell’s, waiting in the “To Sell” book line.  For whatever reason, this line is always long, regardless of when I go.  Admitted, I don’t go on Monday mid-afternoon, but suffice to say that it’s long most of the time.  I’ve been dragging a small bag of books around with me for a couple of weeks.  Two, maybe three dozen at most, all tucked into a paper grocery bag, sitting by my feet.  There’s a blonde man in front of me, holding a bag, and moving a box and bag that are slightly behind him.

I think nothing of this until I hear a voice.  I turn and a short, smallish woman is standing just by my shoulder.  She’s looking up at me, an older woman, maybe in her 70s, with badly dyed hair and limp curls.  She’s got on a blue jacket, her eyes are rheumy, and she is talking. I’m confused because she wasn’t there and then she was and I have no context for her.  After a few seconds, I grasp that Blonde Guy is saving her spot (the bag and box he’s been tugging along are hers), but she’s coming back with a whole handtruck of boxes before her turn comes up.

I say nothing, just look at her, until she finally says “never mind.”  I say “okay” and she scuttles away. I’m flustered and irritated.  There’s a guy with a handtruck full of boxes in line in front of Blonde Guy, he finally gets his turn and is now unstacking and unpacking all those books.  The line behind me, which consisted of no one for a few minutes, is now almost a dozen people long.  And this woman has given warning that Blonde Guy is holding her place in line, but that she’s on her way back with a big fucking pile of books.

I’m now indignant, edging on angry.  This is not okay.  Okay is if she came back and picked up the bag and the box and took the spot in line.  I’d be fine with that.  Not okay is stealthily reappearing with a load that is going to significantly  impact the wait times of everyon in line.  Plus, it’s a dick move.  It’s like asking someone to hold your place in line for tickets, then you show up with 10 other people who also all need to buy tickets.  It’s a breach of the social contract of line etiquette.

We’re getting closer to the registers, Blonde Guy is next in line, then the currently ownerless bag and box, then me.  I ask Blonde Guy and Woman Behind Me for advice.  “What is acceptable line etiquette?” I ask “Why am I obligated to honor a spot for an absent person when I was never asked in the first place?”  Blonde Guy says, apologetically “Since the place is behind me, I think it’s up to you to decide.” Woman Behind Me says “There’s a limit to kindness,” and gives me a sympathetic look.

My heart is pounding harder now, adrenaline threading its way through my blood.  I’m unhappy about the whole thing, and hoping fervently that my turn comes before Handcart Lady comes back.  Secretly, some part of me wants the confrontation,wants to openly say “No.  You don’t get to jump back in line with an enormous, time-consuming pile of books that you should have just brought with you and gotten all into line at the same time. Just no.” That part is small, though, and most of me wants to avoid the potential conflict.

Unfortunately, she shows up the second that Blonde Guy gets called to the register.  The timing is uncanny, but there she is, a tiny woman in a blue coat pushing the promised handcart, loaded with boxes. Fuck me. Now I either let her have her way, or look like a total asshole and tell her no.  I decide to take the asshole route, but to be as polite as I can manage, so I take a deep breath and step forward, around her.

She starts to pull the handcart in front of me, saying “these are my things, he was holding the space for me,” and I say “No, I don’t think it’s okay for you to show back up with a big stack of boxes and jump in line.” Blonde Guy looks at her aplogetically and says “it’s not on me because you aren’t in front of me” and Woman Behind Me says “there’s a limit to kindness.”  I say “I don’t agree that you get to keep a space you didn’t wait in.  It would be okay if you just had these two containers, but not all this other stuff.”

She is shocked and angry and, I think, appalled at my behavior.  Who does this?  Who says “No” when you say someone has been saving your spot in line?  Who says “I don’t agree and I won’t go along?” Assholes, that’s who.  Assholes like me, who are willing to argue a tiny old lady out of her place in line.  I don’t see myself that way, but it seems likely that she and many other people in line do.

I try to step forward and she tries to block me, sort of, pulling the handtruck over slightly.  I ignore her attempt, squeeze past, and step to the front of the line.  She exclaims loudly, and angrily “Oh my god, I don’t believe this!” but I ignore her and stand, waiting for the next register to open.  I am turned sideways, from stepping around her, and she’s glaring at me, furious.  “Where are you from?” she demands. I have no idea why she would ask such a question, why it would be relevant, and I say nothing.

She continues glaring, accusing, and the rest of the people in line shuffle uncomfortably.  I am well aware of what it looks like.  I’m big, younger than her, with a small bag.  She’s small, older, with giant stack of boxes.  To all appearances, I’m bullying an elder and showing no remorse, which makes me a dick.  Of course, she’s not being harmed at all, except by having her will thwarted, but I don’t think anyone but me could give any fucks about that.

When I remain silent, she continues ranting.  “I think you’re making some assumptions about me….my husband is terminally ill with cancer and I left him alone. Today is the only day I have to do this…” Her eyes, already watery, look slightly more weepy, and she’s quite angry and unhappy.  I am unmoved, although the adrenaline is making my face hot and heart thump even more strongly.  She’s attempting emotional blackmail, but it will never work on me, and only makes me more resolute.

If her story is true and her husband is dying of cancer, that is a sad circumstance and I’m sympathetic to her.  But I’m not changing my mind and, thankfully, an employee indicates that a register is now open.  I flee to the register, the guy asks me what happened, and I give him a very short version.  I am sorry for her – she is obviously distressed about something – maybe being mad at me will give her a few minutes distraction from harder issues.

I can’t say why I was so unwilling to go along, and let an old lady have her way, but I think it had to do with her sense of entitlement.  She felt that because she’d made some agreement with Blonde Guy, that everyone else was bound to honor it, regardless of what it truly entailed – a much longer wait than anyone who saw the bag and box would have expected.  But maybe it was because I didn’t want to wait in line a moment longer, maybe it was the final resting place of holiday stress and loneliness, of the work chaos of the last three months, or maybe I am just sometimes a dick.

What I know is that it took less than 10 minutes for me to be done and walking away, and she was finally having to stand in line for herself, waiting for a register.

Yesterday’s boot

It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Power/Privilege, Systems, Uncategorized

Yesterday, at work, one of our programs received devastating news – DOC has decided to withdraw its funding.  They have until December 31st to close up shop.  Our department is keeping this news confidential so the program coordinators can break the news to the women, and so DOC can release the news on its own timeline.  I’m staggered, as I think we all were.  I knew there had been some funding withdrawn for part of the program, but never thought they’d pull the whole thing.

The program’s focus was on rebuilding connections between women and their families, especially their young children.  70% of women in our prison have children, maybe more.  I have witnessed the profound change that takes place when they start to see themselves as good parents, rebuilding their relationships with their children and their caregivers.  I hear, so often, that much of their regret centers around having been such terrible parents, and in putting their children through so much grief.

Even though this program has been incredibly successful (almost non-existent recidivism rates for participants), it’s extremely expensive.  DOC is looking for low-cost, low-recidivism, and high-cost, low-recidivism programming is a plum ripe for the plucking.  Management made it clear it was a budget issue, so that money will be re-allocated elsewhere, maybe to the women, maybe not.

I feel useless in the face of what feels like a cold, calculated decision.  How do you quantify the benefit to the community, both short and long term, of having stronger, more healthy families?  How do you calculate the cost of keep children out of foster care, off assistance, and out of the justice system?  How do you calculate the cost of breaking the cycle of incarceration, especially in poor and minority families?

Writing this post made me realize that I had to speak up, somehow, so I emailed my state representative.  I don’t have any hope that he’ll do anything, but I can’t not speak up and try to make something happen.  I also broke the request for confidentiality, which I’m tempted to interpret as a request (or demand) that we NOT say anything publicly until the decision is officially announced (i.e. a done deal).

The fact that the process and decision were all done without any input from staff (I asked if I could write a statement of support or write a letter and was told no) makes me think DOC doesn’t want anyone from the outside looking at the decision.  They don’t want anyone making waves, or asking how they arrived at their conclusion.

I may just be suspicious and paranoid, but these are my friends and treasured colleagues and I can’t not try.