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

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Do you think I’m black?

When I was in high school, black boys and white boys both called me names.  “Oreo” and “high yellow” came from the black boys, “grape ape” and “jolly green giant” came from white boys.  The message was clear:  I was too light-skinned and too big.  Even then, I understood the issue of size.  Real girls, attractive girls, girls the boys wanted, were small – petite and dainty and slim – not tall and broad-shouldered, with big hands.  Their disdain was clear and the message made sense.  I knew I was a girl, those boys defined what it meant to be a “real” girl – if they said I was too big, then I wasn’t a “real” girl.

The other message, that I wasn’t black enough, didn’t sink in because it didn’t make sense.  I was raised by white people, in a white family and in every way that I’m aware of, I identify as white.  Most white people rarely think about race, and I’m no different.  Even living in the South, I never deeply considered race because I didn’t have to.  It never occurred to me that people’s perceptions of me might be different than my own; that based on my racially ambiguous appearance, people might assume I wasn’t white.

For years, people have asked about my ethnicity, my “heritage”, as it were.  I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with the question, and tried to answer vaguely or avoid answering altogether.  Once I started dancing salsa, and found myself dancing with dozens of men from black and brown countries, the question shifted to “where are you from?” which covered the “what race/linguistic group do you identify with?” question.  They wanted to know what country I hailed from, to discover if we had that in common.  I was asked that question by men from Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba, Colombia, Brazil, Jamaica, Trinidad, Italy, Nigeria, Kenya, Angola, Eritrea, Somalia, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic.  They all wondered if I came from their country.

I used to say “white people always assume I’m white, black/brown people always assume I’m mixed.” Now, I realize that’s a throwaway phrase – a casual way to separate and label interactions that were irritating and sometimes confusing.  The reality is more complex, and my toss-off answer doesn’t seem to fit anymore.

I can think of no better example than my fear of law enforcement.  No other white person I’ve spoken with fears the police the way I do – none of them describe having had the same type of interactions.  I’ve been bullied, harassed, and intimidated the handful of times I’ve interacted with law enforcement on my own. I had some “good” interactions when I and my upper-middle class white partner were living in an expensive home, in a white upper-middle class neighborhood. My racial ambiguity was eclipsed by evidence of money and whiteness, and I was treated respectfully.

My most unpleasant experiences have been through traffic stops. The few times I’ve been stopped, there have been reasons – a careless maneuver, or cell phone at my ear.  Only recently did it occur to me that I might be getting treated the way black people are usually treated – a confusing and terrifying thought.  I’m ashamed to admit it, but there’s a part of me that wants to go back in time and say “wait, are you treating me like this because you think I’m black?  I’m not black, I’m white! I know my appearance can be confusing, but I assure you, I’m white.  Please treat me like you’d treat a white person.”

And that’s where things fall apart.  I start to question whether I’m being treated as I expect to be treated  because I KNOW I’m white – don’t they?.  It is the most ‘in your face’ way to experience white privilege I can imagine – to think that, perhaps some people see me as black or mixed, and they’re not treating me as well as I should be treated because – hey, I’m WHITE!  What’s the solution?  Maybe I should ask?  “Hey – you were mean to me, don’t you know I’m white?” or “Ummm…why are you yelling at me for a traffic stop?  Don’t you know I’m white?”

As I’ve gotten older, the negative messages about my size have become irrelevant.  I’ve grown enough in my confidence and self-esteem to feel comfortable in my body – my tall, broad-shouldered, big-handed body.  But questions of how my skin color and the shape of my features affects people’s perception of me have only now started to surface.  Do people see me as black or white?  Am I being treated this way because of a mistake?  How do I deal with the embarrassment of asking that question – even if it’s only to myself?  Do I wanted to be treated differently?
No – I just want the privileges all the other white people get.

Privilege

An Exaggeration

Seth Godin recently published this very short post:

A parody of yourself

A simple test for brands, organizations and individuals:

When you exaggerate the things that people associate with you, your presence and your contribution, does it make you a better version of yourself?

When Seth gets it right (which is often), he gets it really really right.  I’ve been thinking about this question since I saw the post and damn.  What *do* people associate with me, my presence, my contribution?  I know what I want them to associate with me, and I make an effort to focus on those traits.

But what can I do about those unknown things – the personal quirks and habits and unlikeable bits that I’m unaware of?  The things that people who love me don’t care about but could nevertheless impact my ability to accomplish my goals?  Self-awareness and reflection get me to a certain point, but how do I get past all the doubt and uncertainty and accept that I’m just a human?  A normal human who has normal human-y quirks and habits and oddities?

I thought about doing a self-parody but stopped that idea right in its tracks.  I’m not in the best place to parody myself from a helpful, funny perspective and it’s far too easy to think of myself as a ridiculous monster.  Untrue, of course, but that’s what too much navel-gazing gets me.

So…going out on a limb, I’m going to answer Seth’s question with a “yes.”  People tell me that I’m creative, engaged, warm, attentive, and kind, and those are traits that only make me better 🙂

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

Reading the Comments

I recently wrote a post about rediscovering my desire to serve others.  Much to my surprise, my post garnered a very long, angry comment largely focused on what an arrogant dick I am for openly expressing this desire.  The comment opened with “I don’t even know you” and proceeded to cover a wide swath of territory that included judgments on my character, accusations about my intentions, and speculation that losing my job was caused by my arrogance in thinking I have something of value to offer.

The level of judgment and bitterness was extraordinary.  I hadn’t written anything controversial, it was a personal statement, nothing I’d ever expect anyone to care much about.  I wrote it for myself, to clarify my own thinking and solidify my commitment, and I’d expected it to go entirely unnoticed.  That it engendered such a vitriolic response was a giant surprise.

But what was most surprising was that this stranger had plucked out of my head my very own words, fears and doubts and insecurities, typed them up, and sent them to me.  When I read that so-familiar and hateful rhetoric, felt the judgment and resentment, I was paralyzed.  How did this stranger know to use those words, the exact words that live on a never-ending loop in my head?  How did they know to say the most harmful words, words that would undermine my confidence, and tear down what I’d worked so hard to build – my belief in myself, in my own value and contribution?

How could one person say such cruel things to another person – a complete stranger, someone they know nothing about?  Even worse, what if they were right?

Encouraging words from a friend helped me gain perspective, but this comment, I think, may prove an invaluable tool.  Seeing my own self-doubt and self-judgment so clearly articulated was terrifying.  I would never say those things to someone else, why am I saying them to myself?  Marianne Williamson’s famous writing on our deepest fears includes the following lines:

“It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?  You are a child of God.  Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.”

My internal monologue and this anonymous comment both demand smallness.  They demand that I not recognize any of my potential, talent, or value.  This message – that we have to play little, hide our light, deny our desire to shine and grow and expand – is the message of fear and denial and rejection.  It is rooted in rejection of our shared beauty and grace, grief at our self-imposed barriers, and a profound fear that we will never measure up.  It is that message that keeps us suspended in a state of perpetual self-hatred and destruction.

It is valuable also because I do need to check in with myself, ask for feedback from friends, and pay close attention to the impact I have on others.  But I get to decide which feedback is helpful, which friends and colleagues to ask, and what advice is helpful.  Because I tend to believe the worst of myself, I have to get objective opinions, and advice from people who care about me and want me to thrive.

Ultimately, that one comment prompted useful thought and reflection, although perhaps not in the way the author intended.  I am proud of my talents and skills, the work I’ve done to develop them, and my commitment to helping others, and it doesn’t matter what other people think about my decision to write those things down, or say them out loud.

88427-Confidence

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