Gird Those Loins

It’s the day after the Womens’ March on Washington and I’m feeling emotionally hung over.  The latte is helping, but there is just so much to process and parse, it’s hard to get my thoughts and feelings corralled into a useful space.  I’ve been posting like a madwoman on FB, a bit less on the Twitter, mostly about the march and all the pictures and videos and the overwhelming sense of unity.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this moment, and it’s time to look forward and prepare for when reality hits.

Make no mistake, my loyal cadre of readers, shit will get real.

This march was the easiest we’ll see and it was a big win.  But women are far from a homogeneous group and fault lines are already re-forming.  Women of color don’t trust white women, pro-life women don’t trust anyone who isn’t pro-life (specifically anti-abortion), and issues of class, sexuality, and religion permeate our thoughts, bodies, and hearts.  We have yet to truly welcome transwomen and other women-identified people into our fold, and the political divide seems unbreachable.

White women – woke white women – have a hard road to walk in the coming years if we are to gain the trust and respect of those who have been fighting for decades and longer.  For many of us, walking in yesterday’s march wasn’t a risk.  White people, especially women, don’t fear the police, not in a real or visceral way.  We largely see the police and government as helpful institutions, protectors of our safety, keepers of the peace.  That view is firmly grounded in white privilege and obedience, but the view won’t be rosy much longer.

What will happen when we stop being obedient, or start resisting white privilege by showing up at #BlackLives Matter rallies?  What happens if we show up en masse at events supporting our Muslim sisters, or the rights of trans people?  These are all spaces where violence is a real possibility, and where white, hetero-cis women have been almost entirely absent.  While we made gains toward equality during the era of women’s rights and the ERA, as well gaining the vote in 1920, white women have been the main beneficiaries of these movements, while other women were left behind.

Our privilege and skin color will not protect us for long, and that’s when we will discover if we are truly made of sterner stuff.  I won’t lie – going to rallies and protests in support of people who are targets of law enforcement and hate groups terrifies me.  I am deeply afraid of being injured and even more afraid of getting on the radar of law enforcement.  As a veteran of working inside a prison facility,  the fear of being incarcerated or even in the system is overwhelming.  I go, but I choose carefully and attend when I know some of the presenters or when I can bring a friend or two.

That is my privilege – that I can pick and choose when to show up.  I can choose to attend lower risk events, at no immediate cost to my well-being.  I can choose which issues to support, how to support them, and step away when I’m feeling overwhelmed.  I don’t have to think about everything because my various levels of privilege buy me a pass on an endless number of issues.

I don’t know what it will look like to show up in the coming years, to fight the rising fascism at the highest levels of government, and the groundswell of hatred, contempt, and violence spurting from its supporters.  We have entered a space both familiar and unknown.  Familiar because we can look at the rise of hatred and genocide and recognize those elements, unknown because the very act of observing those elements changes them – changes the outcome.

The question is who directs the change?  Will we be the ones to put ourselves on the line to protect the future, or will we stand by and let others continue to take the risks?  Staying silent or on the sidelines isn’t an option if we want to stay relevant – we can no longer let others fight the hard fight while we reap the benefits.  If we want a future that protects and values all people, a future where we are valued as full human beings, we must look to those who have been on the front lines.  We need to listen to them as our elders and wise women, heeding their wisdom and experience in the fight against injustice.

 

Resist

Lodestones

I’ve been avoiding writing for the last several months.  There are many reasons for this.  I’ve been turning to artwork as an expressive outlet, a need to be out of my internal, intellectual world, a deep, pervasive feeling of exhaustion, and, related to that exhaustion, no desire or will.

The impacts of seven months of looking for work, a two month journey to losing it, and the last ten weeks of re-entering the world of unemployment and job searching again?  Those impacts aren’t clear yet and probably won’t be for some unknown time.  What is clear is that my desire to feel productive, to feel useful, has lost its lodestone.

My internal compass has been spinning wildly, seeking an orientation, a focus, a place to land.  I’ve volunteered, networked, job searched, made art, written, and simply sat on my couch doing nothing.  I’ve had countless ideas for products, novels, art pieces, and community organizations, and I’ve put effort into a business idea with some potential.  But nothing has snapped into that empty spot.  None of my own ideas have quite slipped in to fill that hole – they aren’t big enough yet, solid enough.

What I have noticed is that the pressure to be productive – to always be creating something, doing something, seeking success in some way – is enormous and intense.  Internal, external, implicit, explicit, the subtle and not-so-subtle influences are everywhere.  To say that I feel like a piece of coal being squeezed and compressed into a diamond is a bit dramatic, but maybe it’s the best metaphor.

I no longer have an external motivator or source of direction; there is no one to help me direct when, where, and how I spend my energy and resources.  While I have a strong sense of myself, values, and interests, I’ve never thought of myself as an entrepreneur.  This time of unemployment has changed my thoughts and feelings though, and I’m planning toward self-sufficiency, toward being my own boss.

Perhaps I’m becoming my own lodestone.

lodestone2

Finding North

Today, my life re-oriented itself and I am renewed in purpose.  I had the enormous fortune to spend some time with a friend – one of those friends who is supportive but directive and says the really crucial stuff, sometimes the really hard stuff.  It was the equivalent of someone taking me by the shoulders and saying  “Look, what happened was painful and unexpected, and this path doesn’t get any easier.  you need to learn how to apply some of your skills to yourself, to be more objective about your successes and setbacks, and recognize your value and purpose. you are prepared and skilled and talented and your heart is big enough – time to move forward again.”

And she’s right.  What I’d forgotten, what my time at DOC had hacked away, is my desire to be of service.  For almost two decades, the question that has driven me is “how can I best be of service?”  I haven’t always known this question was pushing me onward, although the pattern of seeking some answer is obvious in my choices of education, career, and interests.  And to be clear, I’m not entirely thrilled about having discovered the question.  I’ve been fighting the knowledge for a while, wanting some acknowledgement for what I’d already done, the service I’d already given.

I was so tired, so exhausted, so beaten down by the endless need and casual, normalized brutality of the prison system that I couldn’t tolerate the thought of more service.  I couldn’t tolerate giving more of myself and getting nothing in return.  The final defeat was when I was being targeted by DOC.  My employer never acknowledged my service, my value, or that they cared about my situation or me.  That was crushing.  To have worked for them for so long, doing such difficult work, and be pushed aside, so casually and thoughtlessly, was a terrible experience.  My desire to serve was profoundly wounded, and I couldn’t imagine ever putting myself back into that arena.

Unfortunately, purpose doesn’t really work that way.

Even if my conscious mind couldn’t bear to think of being in service, the rest of me knew the deal.  I focused on private industry, found a job, and all was well with the world.  Until two weeks ago when, out of the blue, with no explanation, they let me go.  I was thrown into the perpetual chaos, confusion, and uncertainty of looking for work, again, in a very tight market.

I was also faced, AGAIN, with the question of what did I want for myself, what kind of life did I want to live?  Not once, but twice in a six month period I found myself asking the same round of questions, looking at the same batch of answers, and questioning my sanity.  Why would this happen twice?  Why would I be forced into this process twice, in such a short period of time?  What the fuck was I supposed to learn?  Sweet baby christmas, how much reflection was I supposed to do before the light came on?

Of course, I was far too close to see the answer, even though it was probably obvious to everyone else.  Everything in my life is about being of service.  Hell, every single idea I’ve had about starting my own business is based in service to others through education, creativity, or advocacy.  My reading, my art, my writing, it’s all grounded in the desire to serve, to help others be the best they can.

I was hoping for a different answer.  I tried to redirect my ambition in other directions, but it literally didn’t fit.  My ego, my intellect, wants a bigger presence, accolades, acknowledgment, praise, the recognition I see going to others who do work I admire. But that’s not why they do the work and, ultimately, not why I will continue doing that work.

We do it because it’s who we are.  We came here to serve, to be of service, to lift others and, in turn, be lifted.  As Gandhi said “we find ourselves in service to others.” This clarity doesn’t mean my desire for recognition has magically disappeared, it just means it isn’t driving the bus anymore.  I’ve found my north again.

Nothing-Liberates-Our-Greatness-Like-The-Deisre-To-Help-The-Desire-To-Serve.

 

 

In a Raggedy Nutshell

This last venture into unemployment, although not even a week old, has coughed up some significant personal epiphanies.  Because I’m a writer and believe in laying down the roses and the shit, here’s what I’ve learned.

First – I’ve long been clinging to this notion that if I just make the right choices, I’ll somehow have a normal, conventional life.  I’ll write more on that later but the end result is that I’ve never had a normal, conventional life and I likely never will.  I’ve been accidentally unconventional most of my adult life and I wouldn’t change even if I could.

The second epiphany is that I know far less about myself than I thought.  What I’d like to believe about myself and the person I truly am aren’t exactly in alignment.  The best I can say is that I don’t speak or act on my wartier thoughts and urges, which is probably a reasonable success.

Third – I want to own my own business, take charge of my career and financial security, and have what I choose to work on reflect my talents, skills, and interests.  I gave self-employment a try a few years back, but not because I thought it was the right choice.  This time, it’s different, I have a vision for myself, my business, services, projects, and brand.  I’ve resisted even considering this path because it often feels like an incredible cliche, and there are many, many barriers to success.

Frankly, I’m terrified.  I’m considering opening a service business in a city that is physically awash with service-focused solopreneurs.  I want to offer professional development, personal growth, and leadership skills in an environment where even the clerk at the 7-11 is offering a web-based course that will help you realize your true potential.  It’s like Hollywood, only “the industry” is personal development and everyone wants a piece of the services action.  We’re so over-preneured that even the yoga instructors and massage therapists are starting to complain, and yet….and yet….

I am an extraordinary coach and educator.   I excel in working with women, building educational communities, increasing circles of influence, and supporting people in their creative endeavors.  I have a clear vision of building a leadership incubator that focuses on developing everyday servant leaders, everyday bodhisattvas.  I see those people, in turn, extending compassionate influence in all areas of their lives.  Our world is sorely lacking in people who are willing to own the influence they have, and use it for the betterment of others.  I believe that needs to change, and that I am a person who can help others make that change.

But I’m still really, really scared.  My safety net doesn’t feel very safe, and all I ever thought I wanted was a secure, comfortable, normal life.  I can’t pinpoint when that path disappeared, but it’s obvious now that it has, and the path in front of me is far from certain.

Mine-Alone

The Eleanor Club

My friend Dennise and I were talking a few months back about women and power.  We’re both mid-career professionals, were both unemployed, and having weekly conversations about our job search, and what it means to be older women looking for positions of responsibility and influence.  Those conversations birthed The Eleanor Club, a place where women can speak directly about their areas of influence, personal ambition, and what it means to be a woman with power.

Our first meeting was last week and it was extraordinary.  Dennise and I had NO idea there was such a craving for this conversation!  Woman after woman came up to each of us and said “I’ve been wanting to talk about this, ask questions, explore what it would mean to expand my influence and own the influence I have.”

We had no idea, but we should have.

The current power paradigm we live in – authoritarian, hierarchical, individualistic – is becoming more and more problematic.  While it is not clear whether women and men are biologically inclined to use power differently, my personal experience is that women are often more interested in power as a way to connect, not dominate. While this offers its own set of challenges, it also opens the door to an multitude of new directions we could grow as a race and individually.

Women are actively seeking ways to exert power, to leverage their existing influence, and grow their circles.  We are learning to own our ambition, to state loudly and clearly that our agendas are critical to the health and well-being of our families and the planet.  At our first meeting, when we opened the floor for women to speak about the issues closest to their hearts, we heard about

  • community development on the micro level,
  • the importance of civil discourse in theory and practice,
  • amplifying the voices of women in the music industry
  • building a conversation around an all-year school schedule
  • the criticality of local and state elections,
  • finding ways for working mothers to serve as elected officials,
  • and how to protect and heal our environment.

Even though the conversation was entirely unscripted and unexpected, we can clearly see the seeds for robust discussion and action on a wide-ranging and deeply connected group of concerns.  In those moments, I realized that all the women in that room had tapped into something revolutionary – our mutual commitment to actively  and directly influence change through OUR decisions, our ideas, and our actions. It was an unforgettable moment.

quote-when-you-have-decided-what-you-believe-what-you-feel-must-be-done-have-the-courage-to-eleanor-roosevelt-81-51-50

 

Women, Tech, Leadership

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

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