Today was the first day of the Advancing the Careers of Technical Women (ACT-W) conference in Portland. I was selected to facilitate conversation about Servant Leadership, and these are the notes from that session. It was an excellent conversation, and I am deeply appreciative to everyone who participated. I didn’t get pictures of the whiteboards, but here’s what I remember from the conversation, my presentation, and some additional resources on the topics we discussed.
- Coaching up
- “Culture trumps everything” (Change the culture, change the world); when people feel authentically heard, the culture automatically shifts
- Building listening skills; importance of giving indications that you’re engaged including body posture, eye contact, reflective listening (rephrasing or summarizing what you’ve heard), head nods, encouraging verbal responses
- Slowing down processes and thinking slower allows integration of a variety of emotional intelligences
- Using data and metrics to demonstrative the effectiveness of inclusivity; redefining success
- Self care: Your role is not as a therapist. It is NOT your job to walk your colleagues or employees through their personal problems. The best thing you can do is refer them to appropriate resources. Expending large amounts of your time on one person does a disservice to your other employees, your company, and yourself.
- Receiving feedback: Helpful to detach and receive information from a neutral place; process and respond later
- Rules of dialogue include suspending judgments and assumptions
These are the books I had with me, there’s a longer list of books here. If you’re interested in continuing the conversation, I run a Servant Leadership meetup and you’re welcome to join us. Thanks again for your interest and participation.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
All that you Change
The only lasting truth
(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)
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.
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.
My friend Britt said many of the things I’ve been thinking about the Bernie/Hillary “split,” and many are identical to the Hillary/Barak split of 2008, although the stakes didn’t feel as high then. I’m going to vote for whoever is the Democratic candidate. Having total Republican control of this country is unthinkable for me given the current state of the Republican party. It’s not clear to me that the rank and file Dems of this country understand how critical it is that Bernie and Hillary NOT annihilate each other during the primaries, women especially.
The Republicans are positioned to have control over not only our federal branches, but our state and local governments also. They’ve spent years and billions getting governors and state legislators elected, city and county officials, and large numbers of conservatives judges at the state and federal levels. THIS IS WHERE WE LOSE. If we continue spraying vitriol at each other, we lose the power we need in order to stabilize the leakage of civil and personal rights at the state and local level.
We don’t lose because we have a Republican president, we lose because we’ve lost the states, and that means we’re losing to people who have been hornswaggled and bamboozled into thinking big money interests are their interests. It’s been happening for a long time (and here), and the tide shows no hint of turning back – our country is becoming more and more divided between those who can accept the forces of change and those who simply can’t tolerate the thought. You can figure out who is on which side – the people in power want to stay in power and that’s human nature.
But if we spend our energy fighting each other – which is what we’re setting ourselves up for – then we have nothing left to win the bigger battle. I hate using a war metaphor, but that’s the system we’ve got to work with – whether or not we agree. We have set up a system that not only pits the parties against each other, it pits the candidates from the same party into almost as brutal a battle! That’s insanity, and its symptomatic of the black/white, either/or thinking that is now polarizing our citizens.
I don’t write all this because I hate Republicans, tradition, or conservative values. I believe we have much more in common than we allow ourselves to realize. I believe the Republican party – the people who could help us keep a close eye on government reach, help us make and enforce moderate fiscal policies, discuss the importance of reasonable immigration policy that is sensitive to the needs of our nation and suffering people coming here and bring insight to all those other crucial issues – has been hijacked and destroyed by the greed and corruption of a few with limitless coffers.
Bernie and Hillary are going to duke it out – there’s nothing we can do to stop that fight. But the supporters of each candidate DO have a choice – we can choose to limit our involvement in name-calling, bullying, hateful rhetoric, and general nastiness that we’re throwing at each other. We have the choice to stop all of that behavior. Not redirect it toward other candidates, but STOP IT COMPLETELY. When we choose to maintain more civility and kindness, we have more energy to take the work where it needs to happen – at the state, local, and individual level.
It’s fine to disagree, but the level of hateful, vile speech happening within the Democratic party is reprehensible. If we’re going to walk our talk, then our talk needs to change.
Reflection on how the upcoming Whiteness History month is already creating change
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 🙂
blocked blocks, round round, all rounded
puzzle pieces filling
fitting, seamless and tight and smooth
lost last spaces further
optional is no longer an option
liberation is now less than a k
it’s not ok. I can’t move.
grasping grunting gobbling grabbing
high higher highest; close closer closest
tinned, salted, oiled, canned; metal keys roll us back
we’re beginning to smell
three fish or three days; reeking of never-ending visitors
olfactory assault | auditory hallucination | kinetic disarray
visual opulence and luxurious cultural overload
words of hipster wisdom “you’re so Erin Brokovich”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Tonight, I went through the box of memorabilia from my last significant relationship. As anyone who is reading this can guess, it was a combination of sad and “why did I save even the parking receipts?” Considering the final break was a little over two years ago and it’s taken me this long to go through one small box of debris, getting through the box in a single night is like cooking with gas.
The pictures were the worst. I forgot that I’d stashed them all in that box when I ripped them off the refrigerator and out of their frames, and seeing them again was…well, not joyful. I recently heard from my ex that he’s dating someone consistently, but that surely can’t be the reason I finally went through all that old wrapping paper, parking receipts, movie tickets, cards, programs, and other assorted scraps of memories, can it?
I pitched a lot of it, and it was kind of cathartic, but I’ll probably always feel a certain amount of sorrow about the loss of that relationship. I’m glad he’s found someone he can start over with, someone new, who didn’t go through the terrible, shitty things we went through. Someone who will know him as he is now, more relaxed and content, someone who doesn’t have all the baggage we have, and hopefully never will.
It surprises me, sometimes, that I’m as nostalgic as I am. Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise, given all the moving and loss and endings in my childhood. I still have a few boxes of things from when I was a kid, carried around with me all these years. Stacks of old posters, a box of dolls and toys, trinkets, jewelry boxes, nic nacs, comic books, and all the other stuff I accumulated before I left home. It’s surprising how little there is, given 18 years of living with so much stuff never unpacked, but I’ve whittled it down as far as I can, even if I never look at most of it ever again.
There’s something comforting about having those physical reminders of long-gone years, tangible evidence of the girl I was, how I felt and what caught my eye. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel quite the same about the black cardboard box of programs and photos, they carry more complex flavors, and subtle nuances of feeling and thought. Maybe time will crumple those pages too, soften the paper and dull the colors. Perhaps the padding of years means they will age well, and keep their place with all those posters of a gorgeous, young David Lee Roth.
I don’t have much to add, just that the media calling these refugees (I’m looking at you, OPB and NPR) “migrants” for weeks is disgusting. From what I’ve heard, none of the these “liberal” news machines is talking about the US’ role in creating the conditions that are forcing these people out of their countries and they should be. The wars in the Middle East were started by our government, whether or not we supported them, we didn’t do enough to stop them. So we bear partial responsibility for the consequences, and helping these folks shouldn’t even be a question.
I am encouraged every time I see people taking their time and energy to continue to explain and clarify why #BlackLIvesMatter is critical to the welfare and well-being of every human on this planet. We can never be our best selves as long as we deny others the same opportunity. “Acknowledging the existence of one injustice does not the negate the importance of others. Acknowledging the humanity of another person, or of a specific oppressed group, does not deny the humanity of everyone else.”
This is a long post, but Graduation for my students is a complex, rich experience and deserves significant reflection.
I find that I am often befuddled when people remark, with surprise, on the poise, clarity, and eloquence of my students. I am befuddled until I remember that they don’t see them as I do. They may have only seen them, for years, in their darkest places of mind and body. They likely have never seen them at their best as mature adult women. And that’s what I see from the beginning – I see not only the possibility, but the reality. I see it and I hold it for them, until they can see it and hold it for themselves. Graduation is an opportunity for their friends and family to see that person, to see the person I see.
The three months leading up to the big day are often the most stressful for me. We’re not only trying to finish all the coursework, I have to oversee the planning and creation of whatever decorations they want, handle all the security/event details, and begin the process of recruiting a new class. All those things combine into a slow-cooking stew of tedious detail, frustration, an ongoing effort to maintain patience and find ways to keep myself healthy and sane.
By far, the biggest source of stress is the students. By the time we’re planning graduation, they’ve been in the program for about 12 months. They’re tired, ready to be done, and starting to hit the “ending is in sight and holy shit, what next?!” phase. There’s a real risk of self-sabotage for some – I lost one this year just six weeks before she would have finished. There is a lot of fear of transition and change – of endings, a new routine, different supervisors and co-workers. They’ve built a strong, safe community in this room and there are no guarantees about what they’ll face elsewhere.
I am able to help a few get other positions, program graduates are usually in high demand. They’ve proven themselves trustworthy and reliable, and they have good, solid transferable skills. Some stay with me as clerks (three or four usually), some are going to treatment or are releasing in the next few months, so they take whatever jobs they can get. But even with all their learning, support, and new skills, they are aflutter with nerves, and with good reason.
For most of them, this is their first significant accomplishment. Ever.
You read that right – most of them have never completed anything important, or even truly given anything a focused, concentrated effort. Some have – there are a few high school completers (they all have at least a GED), fewer still who have some college success. Most have held crap jobs off and on, but few have held legitimate jobs outside of fast food, waitressing, or low-level service work. The majority of them have survived however they could – all types of illegitimate goods and services, prostitution, theft/burglary/robbery, gambling – you name it, they’ve done it.
Completing this program, for them, is a statement to themselves and their families that they are doing everything they can to leave that world behind. This may be the best they’re going to be for a while, and they have every right to be proud, accomplished, nervous, and afraid. None of us ever knows when we are going to fall short of our expectations of ourselves. We are rarely prepared to fail – especially on a grand scale, and we spend far more time punishing ourselves for our failures than anyone else ever would.
But for women (and men) who have been incarcerated, the fear of failure exists at a whole new level. Until this moment, their lives are a testament to failure, and society incessantly reminds them of those failures. They have failed as daughters, women, wives, sisters, mothers, employees, citizens, lovers, and humans. They have wreaked havoc on themselves and those they love, extending that damage far and wide to innocent bystanders, property, businesses, and the community. Incarceration is the ultimate symbol of failure, one that seems impossible to ever shed.
Because they have done so much damage to their relationships, success in prison often comes with a price. Families, full of rage and pain, demand that they live in a state of constant self-punishment. “Why are you smiling in that picture?! Are you happy to be in prison?” they ask. Or “Why should we come to graduation? You want us to be proud that the only place you can finish something is in prison?” Or “We won’t bring your children, they don’t deserve to see you locked up” and innumerable other thoughtlessly cruel statements.
I don’t hold judgment on these families. While they all have their own broken dynamics, it is impossible to deny these women have done great harm. While the family itself may have put the girlchild’s feet on the wrong path, the choices were ultimately her own, even if they all pay the price. It’s not my place to say that a family shouldn’t be angry, ashamed, disappointed, broken-hearted, they have a right to feel however they feel. But the weight of all that pain and anger is a heavy burden for my students to bear, and adds to their already extraordinary levels of anxiety, heightening their fear of failing yet again.
I had a student collapse in my office sobbing, in part because she was ashamed at the pride she felt in herself for completing the program. She cried and cried while she tried to reconcile her feelings and her desire for her family to celebrate her success. How much worse to fail again after such a glowing, exciting success? How much worse to let yourself and your family down again, after making such a concerted effort to create a different life?
The risk they take in claiming success, in attempting to trust themselves again, is enormous, as is the amount of courage necessary to take such a risk.
In this program, inside these walls, they are at the top of the heap. They are in a position of privilege, they have credibility, they have the trust of staff and security, they trust themselves, they can see and measure their success and accomplishments, and their confidence grows. But once they leave, they go right back to the bottom, and that plummeting drop is enough to drain the courage out of anyone.
They are now faced with freedom of choice and action, they have to pick up the burdens of daily living, supporting themselves and their children, finding healthcare and childcare, and often dealing with aging or sick relatives. They are expected to make amends for their past sins, make endless reparations, and successfully navigate the roadblocks and obstacles society puts in place for those with a criminal background.
Their successes inside the walls become meaningless to everyone but them.
And that’s the ultimate fear: that it wasn’t real, that they haven’t truly changed, that they won’t be able to hold onto this new self. It’s hard enough to carry a strong sense of self-worth and pride, even harder with the weighty legal and personal burden of past mistakes. What if they can’t do it? What if they can’t maintain their sense of self-worth and dignity? What if all they are is what they’ve always heard? What if the new person they’ve struggled so hard to become is just a mirage, with no lasting substance?
None of these questions have answers because the answers are different for every student, for every human being. These questions aren’t even specific to them, although they take on particular weight for this population. These are questions we ask ourselves, all the time, or should be asking. “Am I good person? Am I a person I can be proud of? Am I making the best decision for myself and others?”
That they now not only ask, but care deeply about the answer is one sign of fundamental, personal change. If they can keep asking the question and caring about the answer, that’s as good as most of the rest of us, and better than some. That’s the weight of graduation day for us – a symbol of accomplishment that simultaneously carries enormous risk and hope. It is worth the work, though, for them to experience themselves as successful, proud, confident, intelligent, and valuable, for as long as possible, and to share that new self with their families.
It is a new path forward for all of them, a chance to walk forward together, in a different direction.
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.
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?
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.
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.
What would I do if I could not fail?
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.
No accountability, no consequences.
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?”
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.
I’m not a sports fan and I didn’t watch the ESPYs. I only caught a glimpse of the controversy through some of the postings about Caitlyn’s speech. I admired her line about “call me whatever you want, I can take it. But transgender children shouldn’t have to.” While trans rights and advocacy aren’t my primary focus, they’re on my radar as part of larger issues of social justice and equity for all people. I met a friend for dinner this evening, though, and he asked me my opinion, so I had to think it over more carefully.
He’d expressed a familiar sentiment, something along the lines of “why did she have to make a big deal of it? why did she deserve an award? why couldn’t she just do it quietly and not put herself in the spotlight?” Those are common questions when someone does something that makes people uncomfortable, makes them question what they know and, often, how they see themselves. It’s a sign of privilege, of whatever kind, that we feel affronted and inconvenienced by someone else’s statement of identity or independence.
But with regard to Caitlyn’s ESPY award, I’m reminded of Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, and the controversy that raged around when it was awarded. I had my own mixed feelings. He didn’t really “do” anything to deserve the prize, but he certainly represented an enormous step for the US in moving toward a more equitable future. Whether someone’s symbolic value deserves that level of international, global recognition isn’t clear, but I believe that awarding that prize to Obama was an attempt to recognize our nation and its (bumbling) efforts to progress.
I believe the same is true of Caitlyn’s ESPY. While Bruce was an Olympic athlete deserving of every honor, he was out of the sports world for decades, and Caitlyn has never competed. But I think the award was bestowed for a similar reason as the Nobel – as a symbol of progress toward our betterment as people. That we can accept a trans woman as a high profile public figure, celebrate her courage and beauty, and give her a platform to be a role model for others struggling for acceptance, is astonishing.
So while I remain of mixed thoughts about both awards, I believe that they were given in a spirit of recognition – as a way to respect and honor what they represent, if not the individual themselves.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There have been a number of TEDx events in prisons, both in the US and internationally. Now, TEDx is coming to Oregon. More specifically, it’s coming to Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, Oregon’s women’s prison. I and six of my students are auditioning, I feel confident I’ll see at least two of them onstage. Their audition pieces are stellar, and they’ve been working on them nonstop. I did my audition early because I’m out of town next week, here’s the video.
I wrote the piece for this blog several months ago. I wanted to do something else, but simply didn’t have time to create and polish something entirely new. I hope it’s good enough to make it through to the end, but I’ll be even more happy if some of my students make it. I can always audition for another TEDx event, this may be their best shot for a long time. GO STUDENTS!!
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.
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.
I’ll tell you how bad. Bad. As in stinky. As in poor at my craft. As in confusing, unfocused, and cotton-headed. It’s true that I was sick yesterday and not completely well when I went in, that all contributed. But I also let time pressure get to me and hurried when I shouldn’t have, and all the other stuff teachers aren’t supposed to do. Hell, when one of your best students is getting lost, it’s a sure sign *you’ve* lost something!
I did tell them it wasn’t a great day so they were pretty forgiving and patient. Also, it wasn’t entirely me – we had several interruptions and there was a lot of disruptive energy moving around in general. I’m writing about this because I realized today that although I don’t want my students to ever have to take care of me, there are days when I absolutely need their understanding and patience. A small part of me does want them to reassure me that even in my spazziness, I didn’t do any harm.
It’s awkward and uncomfortable to admit that, after I’ve spent so much time saying “nope, no support from them, only support *to* them.” I never said that out of pride, I just don’t want to take advantage of them. I don’t want to become one of those people who they feel they have to add to their “take care of” lists. Somehow, I don’t think they cared all that much. No one was mean, no one yelled, and we got through our lesson.
Thanks to whatever higher powers (or not) who’d like to take credit. I’m not sacrificing anything to you, but if you want to say you helped us get through the day, I’ll back you up.
I haven’t been blogging much, I’ve been working on a manuscript about my experience working as a corrections educator. I’ve started writing the narrative and it’s gone well when I’ve been able to sit down and write. But I haven’t been writing as much as I need to, as much as I want to. I can’t tell if I’m distracting myself, or if it’s just a phase – a flurry of activity from the world outside my writing.
I suppose this is part of why so many writers, artists, and musicians isolate themselves when they need to create. Although I love my life and my friends and all the wonderful things around me, they intrude on my bandwidth, take away that precious focus I need to generate the good stuff.
This is an entirely new experience for me.
Most of my life the last several years has revolved around my friends, dancing, and my social life. It is disconcerting to feel alone, to hear some small voice whispering “you could be writing,” even while I thoroughly enjoy my time with my friends. I feel like I’m in some unknown place, surrounded by a mist that lives and breathes, parting to let me see through, but not for long.
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.
When I discovered Karen Armstrong’s “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life (book and a summary),” I knew I had found my framework for living an ethical, meaningful life. As I read and re-read the words of those who have influenced me most (bell hooks, Riane Eisler, Ron Miller, Betty Reardon, Shawn Ferch, Stephen Covey, Dr. King, Ghandi, Christ, and so many others), I am pierced to my soul, again and again. They all say the same thing, the same thing their mentors, muses, and guides said, and those before them:
Be kind to one another.
That’s it. That’s the message that matters, and it’s the one we most often disregard. Yesterday, I had one of the best conversations with my students I think we’ve ever had. We were discussing the 5th Habit (from “7 Habits of Highly Effective People“), “Seek First to Understand,” and we explored so many areas. We discussed why we don’t try to understand, what it feels like to be mean in comparison to being kind, why we are afraid to be kind, what it means to have never received empathy, the nature of ethical character, the feelings that form the foundations for both meanness and kindness, the criticality of self-awareness and self-honesty, and the truth that being kind is a practice.
Kindness is both a skill and a frame of mind and being that we can actively cultivate and practice. It isn’t an accident, a happy mischance or inborn talent. It takes constant work and attention to practice kindness and compassion, to build the internal strength and fortitude necessary to maintain its gentleness in the face of cruelty and brutality. But, as with any skill, habit, or practice, it is our choice to continue or not. It is my hope that they will continue their practice, for the rest of their lives.
Every time I think about these conversations, about how I came to this point in my life and the potential for the futures of these women, I possessed by feelings of such immensity and power that I have to breathe deeply and allow them to pass through, around, over. I believe these are moments of alignment, when my heart, mind, body, and spirit are perfectly in tune with our universal purpose. In my more calm and accepting moments, I am humbled by my journey – how each phase of my life prepared me to be this person, to care for these women, to bring something meaningful into this world.
I spent so many years of my life with no purpose, not knowing what purpose meant, or that I might seek and find such a thing. It would be easy to spend time regretting all those ‘lost’ years, but I can’t. Without remembering those meaningless years, my current state would lose much of its richness. Neale Donald Walsch wrote, in one of the “Conversations with God” books “First, you must be who you are NOT in order to be who you ARE.” I believe this is true for both myself and for my students. More than I, more than most of us could ever know, they have been who they are NOT.
Now, they will get the chance to show us who they ARE.
We got the final word last night that the Board had finally up and fired our college president (I’ll call him Joe). He’d applied for a high level administrator position with another college less than two years after being hired, the press got wind of his application and the Board started a series of closed-door meetings. When Joe was hired, I remember thinking "He’s not coming here to stay, he’ll be gone in two years, three tops. He’s a job-hopper." He didn’t even make it two years.
Him getting fired was bad enough but this morning, we got the news that he’s receiving a $300,000 severance package – basically his salary for the rest of this year and next.
What. The. Fuck?
We’re a community college, our enrollment is declining, education budgets are shrinking, and we’re expected to offer the same level of services as we always have. One of our long-running art programs was just cancelled, as was a program at the women’s prison keeping women connected to their children. And this bastard gets the equivalent of BOTH of those programs as his severance? After HE disrespected the college and community openly and publicly and was possibly planning to break his contract!?
I told my students about this and they immediately fingered him as a con man – jumping from job to job, getting hired, then gathering severance money. *They* questioned our Board’s ability to spot this unethical, unprofessional behavior. Women in a PRISON are questioning our Board’s ability to select appropriate candidates! Honestly, right now, I trust my students more.
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.
No kids of my body, but loved this bit <3
Well, the firewall caught up with me and I can no longer access my blog or even WordPress.com from work. While it was fun while it lasted, it’s email posts from here on. The upside is that I will soon be an expert at email posting!
Now I need to tell the story of Twinkie, my first and (so far) only new car, but I’ll write that later. For now, enjoy Leah’s Stratus.
I just completed our required three days of DOC In Service and my ass may never be the same. I don’t remember the chairs being so hard last year, but maybe they were. This is my third In-Service and it was less terrible than the other two, for which I am quite thankful.
But I’ve noticed something unexpected, now that I’m back in my office and with my students. After spending three days with DOC folks (Medical, Security, and BHS), I feel oddly disconnected from my students. It’s almost as if the collective DOC aura rubbed off on me, building an invisible barrier and forcing me to see them as inmates, not students.
It’s a strange sensation, a kind of double vision. I see my student or clerk working or talking to me and, at the same time, there’s a faint overlay of “Inmate” where there wasn’t before. I don’t like it, it feels uncomfortable and disorienting to suddenly have this imposed vision of “Other.” These are my worlds, colliding, and it doesn’t feel good.
I always know my students are inmates (or Adults in Custody), but I don’t give that label priority billing. I work within the rules and boundaries, but their primary identity is themselves, not their inmate-ness. Today, their inmate-ness is more present, and I know it’s a result of three days of hearing others refer to them in that way, being in the mind-fields of those people, knowing that my approach and relationship with my students is so much different than theirs – as it should be. I assume that if some of them saw how my program works, they’d think I was crossing all kinds of boundaries and making lots of mistakes, but they would be wrong.
I just operate differently, the women relate to me in a different way, and I see them first as people and women, not as inmates. I hadn’t realized what a difference it makes, that it makes working here bearable for me. If I had no option but to treat them always as inmates, I couldn’t tolerate the work. It’s good for me to be reminded of the mindset of so many of my co-workers, but that’s not a path I want to walk.
How is it possible that these men are standing in line in front of the police? I can’t even find the words for such courage, dignity, and integrity. This is love as action. Not love of the police, but love as a force for better humanity, love as the best part of people. I’m crying as I type, because I know these men have not been treated well by the people they protect, but they do it anyway. If we could all be so brave.
Check out @VBagate’s Tweet: https://twitter.com/VBagate/status/593187516339093504?s=09
I *love* this blog 🙂
Taking pictures in the facility is always a gamble. We’re supposed to avoid including doors, windows, building lines, and big pictures of the facility from the inside. It’s a useless exercise, because a simple Google image search on “Coffee Creek Correctional Facility” brings up dozens of images of the inside and outside, including the satellite view. But I’m always careful to frame my pictures to include only the students, or equipment, or whatever.
Staff alone are allowed to freely use cameras (still photos only), the only inmates allowed to use the camera (even under staff supervision) work for LifeSkills. They take photos at events, yard photos, and so on. But my department has a couple of cameras and I take class pictures at the beginning of class and again close to graduation. Recently, I realized I hadn’t taken the first set of class pictures and we’re about a year into class! Long overdue, we scheduled pictures, everyone got dolled up, and we had a lot of fun with getting people to pose and smile. I have to admit, I gave anyone who struck a “prison pose” a hard time, but that only made us all laugh harder.
After we take pictures, but before we can let the women see or purchase them, the captain of the facility has to approve them. She takes the camera and reviews each picture and decides if it’s “ok” or not. She reviews the background, the poses, how close the women are to each other and whether or not they’re touching, their clothing, and anything else that might be suspicious. If this sounds ridiculous to you, I don’t know what to say. I suppose having the top level of management review individual photos taken by staff (who are supposed to know what is appropriate and what isn’t) could be considered an effective use of time, but that’s not my decision to make.
I took the camera to the captain and she started looking through the photos. Almost immediately, she began scolding me because some of the women had their t-shirts untucked. That’s right, she was scolding me because of how they were wearing their clothing. She then pointed at one person and asked her name. I told her and she said, accusingly “her shirt is too tight. Why is she wearing a shirt that tight? She must have modified it. Why is she wearing it?”
I was completely dumbfounded. Did she expect me to have an answer? Did she somehow think I was responsible for my students’ clothing? What the hell was happening right now? I said “Well, do you want to call her unit officer and tell him?” She said “No, she needs to come see me.” She wanted to scold this woman in person. The captain of the facility thinks it’s a good use of her time to individually scold an inmate for wearing a shirt she thinks is too tight. Still incredulous, I ask “do you want me to send her over?” and, of course, the answer was yes.
After all the complaining and scolding, she graciously allows me to keep all the photos and I leave. I’m pissed. Seriously pissed. My students are supposed to know the rules and policies and adhere to them, whether I micro-police them or not. I discreetly send the offending shirt-wearer over to the captain and dismiss everyone else for lunch. When they come back, I give them a fairly stern “I don’t like being scolded for you wearing your clothing the wrong way, what the hell were you thinking?” lecture. Not too stern, not too angry, didn’t call anyone by name, but unhappy enough.
When I finish, J raises her hand and says “In all our other pictures, we’re allowed to untuck our shirts and it’s not a problem. We didn’t know.” And bam – I now feel like a complete a$$hat and someone who speaks before thinking or investigating. I feel like that for a couple of minutes as I re-orient and try to make the best out of a bowl of shit soup. I attempt to spin it as “Okay. Going forward, make sure that you follow the ‘professional’ dress code in any pictures you take that aren’t in a casual environment” but it felt stupid and weak. I knew they understood that I’d been given this information by the captain, but now I was caught between what the captain was saying in this instance, and what they’re allowed to do on a regular, ongoing basis.
Was the captain correct, and the untucked shirts against a largely unenforced policy? Or are untucked shirts a pet peeve and she was acting as if her personal wish were policy when it isn’t? What is true? And who, if not the highest ranking security officer in the facility, could clarify this for me?
The answer is no one, and this extremely minor incident highlights one of the thorniest problems in this institution: The inconsistent and arbitrary nature of rule and policy enforcement. The rules and policies themselves highlight the even bigger issue of balance between maintaining safety and using power/dominance to micro-manage and control every single aspect of people’s already limited lives. I mean, is someone having their socks turned down really a threat to the safety and security of the institution?
The fact that I even tell myself “well, maybe somewhere, something bad could come from that” makes me feel like the insanity of normalizing this environment is only a short distance away. Having to constantly evaluate every piece of information to determine its accuracy and relevance, and not being able to trust the people who should be the authorities is nerve wracking, especially since it’s rarely clear when safety really IS the issue, not just power and control.
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.
As embarrassing moments in front a classroom go, I think that accidentally launching a tiny spittle bomb that actually LANDS on a student’s bare skin is one of the worst. Seriously? With all the empty space in the universe and in the classroom, my little dry mouth spitbomb landed on an person’s bare arm? It’s just par for the course this week, along with all the other spastic-ness I’ve subjected myself to.
My students got a good laugh and I made an attempt to look less embarrassed than I felt, but damn.
I write about incarcerated women and corrections education because I see how prison (and all its attendant systems) does so much more harm than good. The prison system was designed by men, to dominate and control other men, and those practices are even more traumatizing and harmful for women. Women were never a significant part of the prison population until the early 90s. Between 1990 and 1995, the number of women’s prisons in the US more than doubled, and by 2010, women made up nearly 7% of the prison population.
There are many reasons for this – ‘tough on crime’ laws, including mandatory minimums and three strikes, and increased criminalization of drug use and non-violent offenses. What I see is that women are punished for making bad relationship decisions, being poor, uneducated, black, and having untreated mental health and addiction issues. Literature and reporting reveal that the vast majority of women in prisons have suffered some form of abuse, with at least 25% of them reporting abuse while they were minors.
What does all of this have to do with romance? Given all of these factors, it becomes almost impossible not to romanticize incarcerated women. It is far too easy to think of them as innocent victims, as people at the constant mercy of men, systemic abuse and injustice, and their own broken-ness. While all those things may be true, casting them in the role of victims and martyrs is a mistake.
When we cast people as victims and insist that that they think of themselves in that way, we remove their autonomy and their responsibility for their choices. This is such a crucial component of working with women that it bears repeating: We must not cast incarcerated women in the role of victims and martyrs. When we do, we remove their autonomy, and their sense of responsibility for their own actions. Accepting their responsibility, regardless of the why, is a key step toward understanding that they can make different choices.
My advocacy does not mean that I wear blinders, or rose-colored glasses. I am keenly aware that the women I work with have committed crimes, wreaked havoc, hurt people, destroyed their families, and left swathes of devastation in their wake. I speak with them openly about this, because having those blunt, uncolored conversations about accepting responsibility must happen. If they are to heal, we cannot pretend that they didn’t do terrible things, or that those choices somehow weren’t theirs.
Before I started working at CCCF, I leaned much more toward the romantic view of incarcerated people – men and women. I had vague notions of unjust imprisonment, oppressive systems, and innocent people being victimized. I realize now that even though those things are sometimes true, society still has to manage people who endanger themselves and others. We don’t always do it well, which is why the system needs vigilant watchdogs and advocates and transformation, but we need to do that work with our eyes open and unclouded by romantic ideals.
One of the most confusing and troubling aspects of my work is differentiating between what I can work with and what I can’t. This shows up most often when students are starting to struggle and I have to determine whether it’s learned behavior, or something deeper and more serious. If they are running into old, dysfunctional patterns of self-sabotage, there’s a solid chance I can help them, if they’re willing to do the work. If it seems that I’m dealing with undiagnosed or untreated mental illness, there’s often nothing I can do until they self-destruct.
The level of ambiguity and lack of clarity in these situations is jaw-dropping. I often have nothing to go on except my knowledge of the student, and my intuition. DOC is extremely limited in what it can do, or offer, with regard to mental health and illness, and I have access to none of that information. If an inmate isn’t an immediate danger to herself or others, they are treated as if they are “stable”. If an inmate doesn’t have a previous mental illness diagnosis, the chances of getting one while incarcerated are almost nonexistent, which means no treatment.
DOC offers little cognitive therapy and that only to the most severely mentally ill inmates. Those who can get mental health services (a minority of inmates) are largely treated using DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy), not cognitive therapy. This means their counselors help them deal with their immediate situation – strengthening their coping and rational thinking skills. While this is necessary, it does nothing to relieve the underlying reasons why they continue to make bad decisions, or the chemical and biological causes for depression, mood swings, and erratic behavior.
About a year ago, I had a student in her early 20s. She’d gotten caught up in some shady stuff her mother was doing and ended up getting a seven-year sentence when she was 18 and a first time offender. Her mother got only five years, but that’s another discussion. I accepted this young woman into my program late, when another student dropped. The New Student (NS) had to do a lot of work in a short period of time to catch up and she did – we were all excited and pleased because she was off to a good start.
She managed to maintain herself for a while, but then we (my program clerks and I) started to notice a cycle of behavior. She consistently had trouble with acting out while under stress, even with extensive coaching and new tools, and about every six to eight weeks, she’d have a major blow up. We’d have a debrief, a big discussion, create a plan with specific goals and steps, and discuss consequences. This happened maybe three times and when the cycle began again, I knew something had to change.
I don’t remember exactly what happened, but NS was headed toward another blowup and, hoping to stop the cycle, I brought her into my office to talk. Because she’d started the program late, she was still finishing up the first module after the rest of the class had graduated and gone. She was the only student working, and we were prepping for the next class and finishing up interviews. She only had another three to four weeks max until she’d be done with the entire course, and I had hopes we could help her hold herself together long enough to finish.
One of my clerks was with us, and the discussion progressed. This time, though, something was different. NS had a harder edge, was more aggressive than she had been and before I knew it, she had slammed her head backward into the wall. It wasn’t hard, but it was on purpose and far, far beyond the norm of acceptable behavior. I immediately called security and two officers came. One, a calm woman who has since retired, stayed in the room and the other, also steady and calm, stood right outside.
I continued my conversation with NS, hoping she would de-escalate and pull herself together, so I wouldn’t have to see her walked out in handcuffs. She managed, but not until I told her she could either throw herself on the floor and have a real tantrum, or go back out and continue working like a grown adult. I was not sure what choice she would make and almost expected her to throw herself on the ground and start punching the floor. She decided to go back to her seat, so I let her and left further conversation for another time. I didn’t feel that anything was resolved, but I hoped her choice was a good sign.
It might have been, but making one right choice wasn’t enough to stop her from completely sabotaging everything she’d worked so hard to build. Within a week, she’d gotten into a serious fight with one of my newly chosen students and both were taken to Medium, to Segregation. She was lucky she wasn’t beaten more badly, and I suppose I dodged a bullet with the incoming student. But the whole incident was horrible and it felt like all that work with her had just swirled down the drain, mixed with the blood running from her cut face.
To this day, I don’t know if her behavior was a sign of a mental illness, or an attention-seeking behavior so deeply ingrained she just couldn’t pry it loose. I’ll probably never know, but it drove home for me that every single person I interact with has a complex, hidden self that I know nothing of, but that influences and permeates every interaction, choice, and behavior. While this behavior seems shocking, it isn’t. Teachers all over the world have to deal with students who are violent, aggressive, sick, mentally unstable, and mentally unwell all the time.
For me, this is another demonstration that these women are human beings. They work and find ways to deal with the issues that come up for them because they feel they have no choice. To give in and act out in their old, self-destructive ways isn’t an option for most of them any more, so they manage, then take another step forward. Given their limited access to resources in such a stressful and negative environment, I also believe they have the strongest desire to change their lives that I’ve ever seen.
A week ago, one of my students had a face to face meeting with the governor of Oregon. She was part of a group that’s been fighting to get the Family Preservation Project refunded, and to get legislation passed (SB939) to support keeping incarcerated women (and men) connected with their children. She’s also a graduate of my program, was my clerk, and I watched her grow and transform as a result of programming that addressed her needs as an individual and as a mother.
Every time I’ve had students who have concurrently participated in both types of programming, the effect is extraordinary. They build a solid core of individual skills and habits, actively grow their sense of self-worth and self-esteem, then they learn how to be more loving, effective mothers and the change becomes exponential. They develop a self-assurance and confidence that individual work alone cannot give, they think of themselves as good parents for the first time.
None of the words I’ve written can adequately describe this transformation, it has to be witnessed, or they have to tell it from their perspective. Seeing this student participate in our community, engage with our state government, and strongly advocate for other women like her, and children like hers, in a way she would never have done before makes me almost giddy.
I drill students on the importance of civic engagement, on becoming valuable members of their community, of their responsibility to discover ways to give back after having taken so much. This is part of their lives now, seeking ways they can create and build, instead of destroy and tear down. This is true for themselves, their families, and their society. But to see it in action brings a profound validation to work that no one but me ever sees. My program inside the walls is low profile, we aren’t written up in the paper, or interviewed on the news, or otherwise recognized.
But I have faith that my students will leave and BE the kind of people and women the governor is willing to meet with and listen to. I know this because it’s already happened.
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.
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.
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.
Where is the small sadness at the drawing down of days?
a moderate grief that comes from knowing the ways
my path no longer wanders;
all the roads that will be forever
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.
I’ve written before about creeping into middle age; waking up one day to find myself post-45 and so confused – what happened to all those years? I have no answer, no one ever has an answer, but it seems we’re all compelled to ask “where did so many years go?” Childhood and young adulthood seem both close and infinitely far, unreachable.
As I move further and further from those stages, memories fold in on themselves, colors bleeding, edges dulling. I remember bits, snippets of videos – gifs now – things that were once so critical. I hear only my voice, narrating scenes – riding with my friends, galleries of images from my undergraduate and graduate studies, friends who have long since disappeared, bad and sad relationships, stupid dates, moving, a montage of family footage, so much dancing, glimpses of my occasional travels, and the geography of my internal landscape.
So much doesn’t seem real anymore – it’s hard to remember how all those moments felt. I can see them happening, and describe them but, as they grow more distant, it’s harder and harder to recall the feelings, the physicality and presence of me.
That distance seems both blessing and curse.
I was not an exceptional young person. I was not a stunning beauty, talented athlete, genius musician, or great intellectual. I had some moderate successes, but they were because my peers were less educated and trained than I, rather than any outstanding natural talent. That trend has continued throughout my life – moderate ability and success at a number of things, but no “one great thing” that I’ve excelled in.
Perhaps that will continue, or perhaps I will find my “one great thing.” As I note the years passing, though, and gain insight into what it takes to truly excel, I become less and less sure of both my ability and my desire to make that kind of mark. I know what it takes to be expert, and those 10,000 hours don’t come easy. They come harder later, not impossible, but far less effortless.
I think, maybe, that walking the road of the moderate talent has been by unconscious choice. I’ve lived on the outskirt of the spotlight for many years, supporting others and feeling content in that role. I continue play that role today and while I have a measure of contentment, something else is stirring. Many times I’ve felt unrecognized and unappreciated, but it’s hard to know if that stems from a surface desire for recognition, or a deeper sense of always being unseen, of always being a step outside of the golden circle.
As I look to the middle and elder stages of my life, I find that I am like every other human – I desire to leave something of myself behind, a legacy or even a memory. I wonder if it is my destiny to leave this world better, but unremembered.
I do feel fear, occasionally, of growing older. Women over 50 are often relegated to silence, voices suppressed, disregarded in so many ways. I don’t want that to be my fate, I don’t want to grow older with only those melting, self-narrated scenes for company. Like so many before me, I want to be relevant and useful and desirable for as long as possible. I am afraid that I won’t get more chances, that I’ll be discarded, consigned to the cold hands of memory.
There is no comfort here, no warm acceptance of the nature of life and of time. I don’t feel a special resolve to age gracefully, to step aside so others can have their turn. Do I want to live forever? No. But do I want to be present for every moment until I die? Yes.
The minutiae of the every day
overwhelms my being
it has no Exit
there are no signs to show it out
no words outlining its path to freedom
I am trapped by my own experience
for the simple kindness of someone
I want to share myself with others
but there is no room
for my mistakes,
the common ugliness
anger, blame, bitterness
all part of who I am
hidden from disinterested eyes
they get the good stuff
I live alone
with everything else
There is room only for coffee shop conversations
fleeting and surface, full of humor and wit, or intensely moving stories
of suffering and beauty
no space for talk about the officemate I can’t stand,
my loneliness and self-imposed restrictions,
feeling unappreciated and overlooked, invisible
forced laughs when it gets too close to my everyday pettiness,
making sure my “attitude of gratitude” shows; that I know how good I got it.
I see the silver linings and own my feelings, not making them someone else’s responsibility
there is no place for my regularness to show itself; my not-reasonable human-ness is not-welcome.
I am caught in my own hall of mirrors, the sole reflection. My throat bulges, stretched with all the unacceptable, indigestible me
“No one likes a complainer”
but what they mean
is that no one wants to find out
why they complain.
the real reason
the bleakness that lies underneath
It’s too hard
to bear someone else’s daily grief
with our own so ever-present
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.
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.
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.
I wish someone had warned me, but I’m beyond that now. My feet are crossed under me, arms tucked at my sides, backpack neatly in my lap. I sway from side to side as we round corners, my eyes glazed – turned toward yellow stripes that flicker in in the twilight. Not long now, and I’ll get to pull the dirty plastic cord. I pray I don’t miss my turn. It’s likely I won’t get another one, given where we’ve been and where we’re going.
I breathe shallowly, trying for air while minimizing the filthy odors crawling into my nose and mouth. It’s a wasted attempt, but I fool myself into feeling some control. My stomach roils, churning at the bottom of my throat as we jerk and slow in stuttering increments. My knees cram against the plastic of the seat in front of me, and I have to turn sideways as the creature next to me lunges upward and toward the aisle.
I desperately suck my body inward, trying to avoid even the frayed and dirty edges of clothing moving past me. It’s no use, my cringing and pressing. I’m subjected to a full frontal assault of physical and olfactory sensation. Slick, sticky nylon and discolored cloth dig and drag across my backpack and hands. Somewhere under the layers, a body exists. I can feel the outlines of bones as the skeleton forces the muscles and organs through the tight space. I wonder if my bones and organs are also on tactile display.
A toothy metal zipper chews my knuckles and a boot stubs at the inside of my foot, jolting it sideways. I hold my breath, chin dug into my chest, as I try not to inhale backwashed air. Finally, the neverending moment ends; the exit is made, and I am solitary.
My feet rearrange themselves, my hands and backpack return to their neatly defined positions. My gaze slips out of focus, sliding across gray and black shapes that connect and disconnect almost instantly. They catch on a canary yellow splash and I panic – did I miss it? Oh my gods, what if I missed it!?
My body tightens, a painful internal burst of chemicals speeding up my heart and panting breaths. Tired eyes reach forward, grabbing desperately at any familiar scrap –something that would indicate that I am not too late. Though hazed and clouded with used dirt and dried fluids, plastic provides a window of opportunity. I can see that I am near, but not too far. The rubber burns my skin, and the smell of old grime lingers.
Then….the nightmare is over. I exit at the next stop.
I haven’t kept up with the story about the two murdered NY police officers, so I looked up the story on Wikipedia. I shouldn’t have. My fears have been realized – the shooting has derailed the conversation about police violence, the need for reform, and racism completely. The conversation is now about how the Brown/Garner protests caused this tragedy, and how if it weren’t for all the anti-police rhetoric, this never would have happened.
All of that, of course, is so much BS. It’s much easier to focus on the choices of a single person and claim that those horrid choices are the result of all this upheaval and turmoil. It’s true that he probably seized on the protests and all the anger and outrage as a way to express his own anger, outrage, and violent tendencies. But he already had a long-established pattern of violence – he wasn’t suddenly radicalized by civil rights protests. He had a serious set of baggage before the protests even began.
Right now, what I feel is a sense of mourning, the loss of an opportunity-in-the-making for us to discuss some incredibly difficult and complex and hurtful issues. This event, while tragic, now provides a way for one group to shift the conversation in another useless direction. The police and their unquestioning supporters are more defensive than ever, less open to discussion, more prone to attack, to vitriolic rhetoric, and to framing themselves as suffering victims and martyrs.
I had hoped that the events of Garner/Brown would at least result in keeping the conversation going – however ugly and uncomfortable it might be. Now, it isn’t only business as usual, it’s a case of the victims being required, again, to comfort and reassure their oppressors.
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.
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.
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.
Trey looked at the number again, discreetly wedged between grainy shots of glistening, oiled bodies. “Door-to-Door Escort Service, all days, all hours, anywhere within the Metro area. Mention this ad and get a 10% discount on your first request. Call 555-478-5698.” He was embarrassed it had come to this, but things weren’t coming together for him anywhere else, and his situation was getting desperate.
Furtively, he stepped into the hallway and dialled the number. A pleasant, slightly husky female voice answered.
“Thank you for choosing Door-to-Door Escorts, how may I help you today?”
Trey cleared his throat nervously “I’ve never used your service before. ummm….what are my options?”
“We provide integrated escort support for a variety of daily living situations – back and forth to work, picking or dropping off from school, grocery or household shopping, retail shopping excursions, or general metro area exploration. What type of activity are you planning?”
“Well” Trey cleared his throat again “It’s Christmas and I need to shop for some gifts for my kids. Their mom and I are divorced, so she can’t go with me, and….well, you know how it is”
“Yes sir, indeed we do. So, a retail shopping trip, heavy foot traffic, and a need for close proximity at all times, does that sound about right?”
Trey was feeling slightly less awkward, but still unsettled “That sounds right, but how does it work? Will people be able to tell?”
“Oh no sir! Our escorts are highly trained and quite experienced in appearing relaxed and natural, just as if they were truly your partner or friend. We have been in business for over ten years and have a 95% success rate. We’re quite proud of our escorts, they do incredible work.”
Trey considered that 5% gap, but quickly decided it was worth the risk “Okay. How does it work, and how do you know who to send?”
“We select your escort based on the questionnaire I will send you, in addition to reviewing a recent photo of you that clearly shows your complexion, dressing style, and gives a sense of your economic status. I will send you a selection of 2-3 escorts, in addition to photos and websites, and you will make your selection. If you have the time or inclination, we can arrange a 15 minute phone conversation to confirm compatibility. If not, we will send your escort, with a car and driver, to take you to and from your engagement. This is all included the pricing. We find it yields better results for you to be seen arriving and leaving with your escort.”
Trey wasn’t wild about the extra expense but, again, it was worth it. “That all sounds fine, but I need someone to go with me this evening. Can we get through the process quickly?”
“Of course sir. If you’ll give me your email address, we’ll get started right away. Do you have a preference for your escort’s appearance? Will you be needing a male or female escort this evening?”
Trey thought for a moment. A man would be more relaxing, but they probably would get sidetracked in the sports or electronics store. A woman would help keep him on track. “A female, preferable blonde or red-headed, fair, with light eyes.”
“An excellent choice, sir. Our light-haired, light-eyed escorts are quite popular! You should see my email within the next five minutes, please call me back if you don’t, or if you have questions. My name is Jeanine.”
Trey glanced at his phone, the email was there. “I’ve got it, thanks Jeanine. I’ll have my information back to you within the hour. Thank you again, I don’t know what I’d do if your service wasn’t available!”
“Oh no, sir, the pleasure is all ours. We take great satisfaction in keeping black men safe by providing white escort services. Thank you for calling, we’ll be back in touch shortly.”
Trey hung up the phone, and turned to the questionnaire.
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.