Women, Tech, Leadership

Change/Transformation, Leadership, Power/Privilege, Systems, Uncategorized, Writing

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

recommendedreads

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.

After the Purge

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

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

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

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

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

I just don’t know how to start again.

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

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

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

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

Figure vomiting words

Give It Up

The Basest Discourse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

kindness

The Myth of Expectations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

unhelpful

Working the seams

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

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

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

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

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

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change.

(Parable of the Sower, Octavia E. Butler)

The central paradox of Earthseed is:

Why is the universe?
To shape God.

Why is God?
To shape the universe.

(Parable of the Sower, Octavia E. Butler)

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

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

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

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

change-alone-is-unchanging-quote-1

Taking turns

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least I’m not a bullet.

bulletfired

I Can’t Move

Change/Transformation, Life, Poetry, Random Observations, Uncategorized, Writing

blocked blocks, round round, all rounded

puzzle pieces filling

fitting, seamless and tight and smooth

lost last spaces further

and further

away

optional is no longer an option

liberation is now less than a k

it’s not ok. I can’t move.

 

multiplication

diversification

gentrification

 

grasping grunting gobbling grabbing

high higher highest; close closer closest

packpackpack

 

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”

Conversations with Life, #3

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

Life,

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

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

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

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

Dear M,

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

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

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

Always,

Life

Is she gay?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graging?

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

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

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

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

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

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

I feel better now.  Graging over.

Down and Left

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

Stop looking down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Going through the remnants

Life, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

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.

Graduation Day

Change/Transformation, Corrections, Life, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

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.

Conversations with Life, #1

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

Life,

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

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

How do I do that?

Dear M,

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

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

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

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

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

Always,

Life

But, it’s so GOOD for you!

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

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

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

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

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

Milestoning

It's Personal, Novelicious, Uncategorized, Writing

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

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

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

Lost threads

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

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

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

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

TEDx comes to prison

Change/Transformation, Corrections, Creative, Reflection, Social Justice, Uncategorized

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!!

Twitter-fied

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CIhPMuzUMAEgtxQ

For my black friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heart’s Fog

Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

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.

The Way Forward

It's Personal, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

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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.

The truth in practice

Change/Transformation, Classroom/Curricula, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

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.

Shite happens.

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

tangle-of-wires

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

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

Worlds collide

Corrections, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Relationships, Uncategorized, Writing

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.

Policy or pet peeve, who knows?

Corrections, Obstacles/Challenges, Power/Privilege, Rants, Systems, Uncategorized, Writing

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.

Six days and a wake up

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humiliating teacher moment

Laughter, Uncategorized, Writing

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.

Romance vs Reality

Change/Transformation, Corrections, Feminism, Systems, Uncategorized, Writing

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.

The moon rises

Corrections, Hard Stuff, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

wpid-img_20140909_071858.jpg

Behind the Curtain

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

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

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

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

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

Consumed

It's Personal, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

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

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

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

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

Bedtime existentialism

Change/Transformation, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

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.

Everyday loneliness

Creative, Uncategorized, Writing

One

The minutiae of the every day
overwhelms my being
I can’t
let
it
go.
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
thrashing, longing
for the simple kindness of someone
else

Two

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
bottled
tucked away
they get the good stuff

I live alone
with everything else

Three

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
or burden

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

Four

“No one likes a complainer”
they say
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

Writing by the light of my phone

It's Personal, Uncategorized, Writing

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

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

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

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

Rocks in the water

It's Personal, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

And she said

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

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

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

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

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

Middle Age

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

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

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

I miss my childish eyes and youthful heart.

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

I welcome my soft eyes and gentle heart.

Exit

Uncategorized, Writing

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.

The Thing About Loneliness

It's Personal, Uncategorized, Writing

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

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

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

Standing In Line

It's Personal, Uncategorized, Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Escort Service

Power/Privilege, Social Justice, Systems, Uncategorized, Writing

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.