The Way I Was Taught

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, Dr. MLK Jr says. A similar truth, I say, is that justice anywhere is a threat to injustice everywhere.

With the recent surge in attention towards violence perpetrated against Black citizens of the United States (arguably, the largest Civil Rights movement of history), I return to studying Black liberation literature, a study I regret ever neglecting (how many people died while I didn’t trouble myself to undo my White Supremacist education). I read bell hooks, Patrisse Khan-Cullors & Asha Bandela, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Austin Channing Brown, and Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy waits on my shelf, as well as more bell hooks. I remember, as I read, how life-changing Malcolm X, Cornel West, W.E.B. Dubois were for me the first time I woke up from The Dream. The Dream is how Ta-Nehesi Coates labels the American empire, the racist mirage, the white-washed delusion that American citizens live in (Between the World and Me).

This conversation isn’t about me, but as I read his book, I reflect on the fact that I am one of them. I am one of those deluded American citizens. In The Dream, I was born at the top of the food chain, in the Capitol rather than in the districts (thank you, Hunger Games). Coates writes at length about this racist system, his words are eloquent, and he leaves no stone unturned in regards to the racist machine of my people, my country. I don’t have words to add to his about race. Read his books, they speak for themselves. Coates, whose prose overcomes me with sadness and gratitude (for the revelation of Truth) all at a time, speaks for my heart, even as he speaks from his own perspective (very different than mine), to his son.

I do, however, have reflections about my own experiences of classism and racism, that I share as a practice of introspection, stirred up in me by the works of literature in my hands.

As I grow up, there are “bad” parts of Little Rock. There are places where–spoken or unspoken–my people agree not to visit. There are places my people agree not to shop. There are communities my socialization intentionally blinds me to. During that time of my life, the adults imply that people there are not fully people. A man sleeping by a garbage can is invisible, and thus, less-than-human. People who drive cars that break down on the interstate (more broadly, people who ever need help) are unorganized, use their money frivolously, they’re the problem, they don’t work hard enough. They’re not human. They should have behaved differently to avoid those situations like we (humans) did.

As a child, I assume that in those grocery stores, people yammer like Ewoks, or they sneeze without covering their noses, or do some other heinous thing that makes them less human, less like me. My childish mind struggles to make sense of what I am taught, because my heart balks against the fault of logic in this curriculum of hierarchy. I need to witness them being less human than me in order to believe that they are. To me, it looks like a man with dark skin getting off his motorcycle at the gas station. Why, then, does my father lock the car doors when he sees him?

In college, separate from my family,financial circumstances force me to pursue housing in the “bad” areas of town. By this time I’ve had friends who call those areas home. I’ve driven through them, and I’ve noticed the differences, but I don’t see anything less human about an overturned garbage can, dented mail box, liquor store down the street, or broken-in windows. Looks to me like the people who live there are busy. Looks like they’re doing the best that they can.

I visit the grocery stores in the parts of town that I was socialized to ignore, to consider a blight on our city. I find people working hard. I find extremely helpful Sonic employees. I find adults working twice as hard as I’ve ever worked for half the pay check. There are friendly Kroger greeters, there are busy business owners, there are strung out homeless folks camping by dumpsters. There are people. Flesh and blood, fully human people.

I see it. It doesn’t match up. Then I read Ta-Nehesi Coates’ book; I read his vivid and thorough explanation of The Dream, I imagine him reading the words out loud to me, about me: “I saw mastery communicated to theirs [White children of White parents]”. I was socialized to be a master, but mastery never made any damn sense. The lie of superiority is handed to me, upon my arrival, along with the case for Black dehumanization. I am expected not to question it, to blindly accept belief in my superiority as a part of my White identity.

I am not made for it, though. God made me, and God made all humans. And humans are equally human. No one was made less than. Children are born knowing this, but the history hidden in our cells denies it. White mastery over Black bodies is woven into our bones, it is the foundation of the empire that my people built for themselves. And it is laced with our own destruction. The illusion of mastery destroys us, because it denies the humanity of others, which is connected to our own. Destroying Black bodies is destroying the sacred, communal vessel that humans–regardless of what they look like– share as spiritual beings.

I realize all of this because I am reading literature by Black Abolitionists. Their words of Truth and justice in my mind naturally destroy The Dream within me. They save me. Their voices give me the chance to undo the mirage of mastery that stole me away from Truth, that occupied my mind with lies at such a young age. The injustice in my mind doesn’t stand a chance before the justice of their words (gracious bearers of horrendous truths).

The ones from whom my people took everything pave the way for my full humanity.

Thank you. Thank you, Abolitionists. Thank you, Black thinkers. Black mothers, fathers, grannies, children. Thank you for surviving. Thank you for overcoming. Thank you for not burning my people to the ground like we deserve.  Thank you for setting me free. Thank you for living, for trying to live, and for trying to save your children, despite the oppression. You are mighty oaks, you are relentless, you will live to see a more just world. Thank you for writing. Thank you for your struggle. May you be blessed, may you be free.

 

Let the light in
Keep it shining
Let it break into the darkness
All the love dares us to see
We’ll all be free ~William Matthews

Would Love Actually Drown Us?

My life was one thing, now it is a completely different thing. My life was a man and a cat in an apartment downtown. There were beautiful things about that life, but I see (as I saw then, though then it was looking through a fogged glass) that I was emotionally disconnected, alone. The apartment had toilet paper, clean dishes, napkins, all the necessities except for the oxygen my heart needs to breath: showing up for each other emotionally. He wouldn’t (perhaps couldn’t) meet me on that level. Our life together didn’t expand to include the tossing waters of emotion and growth that we both contained within our individual selves. The emotion expanded, the space between us didn’t.

Hindsight is 20/20 and I know now that I would have felt so alone, continuously, had I stayed. My best friends saw it. I couldn’t stay without continually forfeiting the parts of me that I have worked so hard to resurrect. I couldn’t stay and let emotional abandonment have the last word in my life. I had to go in order to undo that narrative.

I just wonder if it would have been more beautiful had I stuck it out until things were better. (Was there ever going to be a better, like he promised me there would be, so many times?) I hear that fear in the voices of some friends–behind their words they whisper (or I project): What if you had loved better? What if your love had been stronger, more healing? What if you could have shown a better sort of love, a love that would over shadow your needs? (That sounds like drowning). But where is your nobility, Lydia? Where is your faith in human togetherness? It was there when you signed the page in the presence of the judge called last minute to say the words. Where is that faith? Where is the God within? Why couldn’t you have tried harder, have saved the relationship? Wy couldn’t you save him?

Because he needed me to save him. Or, more accurately, he thought he did. That was the hand pushing me down into the river. That was the force that would have drowned me.

Why weren’t you enough?

Because it wasn’t meant to be.

Because the beauty of the relationship and all it was meant to be had run its’ course. Perhaps it was never meant to last longer than those three and a half years full of invaluable lessons. Lessons you couldn’t have gotten any other way.

I didn’t die for something that refused to be saved. I walked away to save myself (and him too, I hope).

My love wasn’t big enough to save him, or to save the relationship, but it was big enough to save me, to propel me away from the water and the hand pushing me down into it. My love was big enough to save me, and that’s actually enough.

I’m still here. That’s enough. That’s love.

 

Why This Christmas?

 

 

My soul has questions. It came to me like this. I’m fairly certain my soul thinks this whole life thing is an interrogation. I face questions everyday such as: why am I here? What is the purpose of my life? Where can I find meaning? Do humans all find the same meaning in life? Why are we so fractured? 

The list goes on. When I was a child the questions were a crushing weight (no adults seemed to have answers that I could hang my hat on); now, well, we get along better.

I suffered severe depression and anxiety from the latter part of 2016 until the fall of 2019. For those blessed to not have experienced this ailment of soul, body, and mind, allow me to make something inescapably clear: spirituality doesn’t work when you’re depressed. Honestly, the desperate struggle that I made to hold onto my spirituality contributed to my depression (that’s another story). 

My current working theory on this is that (western) spirituality becomes unhelpful when one is depressed because depression disconnects us from our body, and muddles the mind terribly (think slicing pain, forgetfulness, loss of will to live. You’re jealous, I know.). Traditionally in the West we have held our spirituality in the mind and spirit. See how the two don’t jive? Depression=mind muddled, disconnection from body. Western spirituality=lives in the mind and spirit, rather than in the body. See?

Leading up to and during this season of depression (not my first, probably not my last, but, hey, I’m getting good at it!) my faith slowly slipped away. You say Jesus, my mind says “but was he real? And resurrection…really? Even if it did happen, how is that relevant to my inability to get off this couch?” You say mysticism, my spirit says, “I still want to die, and no matter how much you meditate, that feeling won’t go away.” See what I mean? Spirituality just didn’t work for me anymore, so the faith of my mind and spirit, well, it slipped away. 

Not that I didn’t try to hold onto it. Desperately. If I was Jack Dawson and the door under Rose was faith, I was pushing her off to save myself. That’s how fervently I wanted to keep believing. Even if I didn’t go to church. Even if my relationships with practicing (mostly conservative) Christians continued to deteriorate. I wanted Jesus. I wanted the moral code that I had studied and followed for my entire life. I wanted to be able to read Psalm 139 without throwing my Bible against the wall. I wanted the comfort that spiritual songs used to bring me. But I couldn’t do any of it. Trying to was nearly torture. 

My beliefs in Jesus from strong, to non-existent, to a gentle acceptance of it all.

What stopped my clinging to the Christian tradition and finally pushed me over the edge, you ask?

The Christians. The people I would have called my community. The self-proclaimed gate-keepers of the Kingdom (so much for Peter, up there taking heavenly role). People who had seen me energetically greet refugees and immigrants from other countries. People who had funded missions trips I went on and bragged about my service and joy. 

I kept my distance from the entire Christian community during the course of my depression (except for a select few friends who manage to love and respect me despite our differences), not wanting to kick the hornet’s nest. Then, through a series of events involving a roommate (you know how that usually goes, damn it), word got out that I was–gasp–a universalist. 

The Christians couldn’t take it. I was met with, told I was wrong, told I was no longer invited to their community. 

A social media post about my new, more open and inclusive beliefs, that I hadn’t posted with the attention of offending anyone, was met with pages of cruel comments. I was told that I could say blank but I could not say blank. It wouldn’t have hurt, I would have written them off as your run-of-the-mill jerks, if it wasn’t people who had known me for so long. If it wasn’t the same thing that I had grown up hearing. If it wasn’t what my own blood says. 

It hurt. I was done. Christianity could die a cruel death (the tradition has a history with that sort of death anyway). 

That was, until Christmas this year. 

Of course, it wasn’t just Christmas season popping up that helped me find my way back to a loose hold on Jesus. I had remembered, over the past few months, the importance of stopping to smell the roses. I’ve never been a fan of how roses smell, personally, but it’s the concept I am after here: pauses are essential components of mental and emotional health. Pausing to absorb something good all the way into the body is a holy practice. Returning to meditative practices such as reading poetry slowly, taking walks, letting go of fear-driven action, and pausing to look at flowers, trees, my cat, etc. had begun to pull me out of the lingering fog of depression and anxiety (along with good food, deep rest, and frequent exercise) by the time Christmas decor appeared in the Anthropologie window display. 

My relationship with Christmas over the years hasn’t been particularly noteworthy–I don’t watch Lifetime movies and I’ll be fine if I never walk into another Hallmark store. 

As a child, I did love staying up late in my room on Christmas Eve to soak up the soft glow of the Christmas lights hung over my curtains. My family took a yearly trip to visit relatives that left me over-stimulated (I hadn’t yet learned the importance of 10-20 minutes per day with my eyes closed and my legs up the wall to reduce my ever-present anxiety), over fed with rich food that caused me severe stomach aches (gluten intolerance and dairy sensitivity, both unidentified until I was in high school), and uncomfortable (I have needed regular movement since I was a child, and was generally denied it on these trips). 

So, by the time I broke ties with my family when I was 18, I needed a break from Christmas. One year I was suicidal on Christmas and spent the evening in my car listening to beautiful, melancholy songs by one of my favorite bands, Gungor. Later, I spent two years overseas for Christmas (in a country that celebrates the holiday on a far less extravagant scale).

That was my break from Christmas. Last year, I felt pretty meh about it as well. 

This year is different. Oh ho ho, my friend, this year, some magic has infiltrated me. Did you know there are stickers in the shape of glittery gingerbread shaped men at Michael’s? Do you know how delectable the Holiday Spice Yankee Candle smells? Have you felt the utter joy of sitting on a couch in the dark, staring at the lights and ornaments on a two-foot-tall tree with your hand stroking a black cat’s smooth fur? 

I know it isn’t the Christmas things that are making me feel this way. Not entirely, that is. But since I have cultivated that practice again of pausing and absorbing, and probably due to the long break from engaging with Christmas, the Christmas ish is digging its way through sensations in my body, into my soul. The Christmas lights pinned against dark winter nights, the yumminess of Christmas cards, the warmth emitted by Thistle Farms candles, the exchanges of good cheer and song. It’s priceless, and it is bringing my heart, body, and spirit back together as one. 

 Last Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Church that I semi-regularly attend (per the insistence of my inquisitive soul that relentlessly longs for conversation about all that is impossible to put into words, i.e., spirituality), the Reverend Jan said something that made me catch my breath: “We need not leave behind the stories that hold meaning in our hearts.”

We need not leave behind the stories that hold meaning in our hearts.

Jesus. I need not leave behind Jesus. 

I need not leave behind Christmas–a holiday who is shrouded in painful memories for myself and many people–because it brings light into my dark spaces. I need not leave behind the stories of Jesus, and of unconditional, all-encompassing Divine Love that the Christian tradition handed to me.

Let the bullshit be as it is. Let Jesus be who he has been for you, Lydia. Let the Psalms be what they have been. Leave the rest out of your mind. 

If Christmas can be redeemed and redemptive in my life, than maybe Christianity can too. 

As my favorite Christian author, Sarah Bessey said in her new book, “I pray that you will bless the box you once needed for God and that you will treat it tenderly even as you leave it behind.”

 

There is tons more to this story. Religion and spiritual beliefs are an undeniable, inevitable part of my life (how else could I hold this soul?). I’ve experienced my greatest pain and greatest joy at the hand of religion, of this idea of Jesus, of God. I’ve read books about indigenous sacred beliefs that are arguably more peaceful and inclusive than the Bible. There is the reality that I am a white woman of European descent and I’m not sure about how I feel that my people have hijacked the holy book of the Jews. There’s a lot to this. Clearly. But for now, this is the story of Christmas season for me this year, and a splish of redemption in my story of spiritual exploration

Re-embracing the stories that hold meaning in my heart may be just as sacred and healing of a practice as staring at my Christmas tree and its’ beautiful orbs of light nearly every December evening is. Encountering abysmal darkness on the path of our lives is unavoidable. We may as well allow every light–even that of the smallest or most inexplicable candle–to glimmer over our secret souls. I can let the stories of Jesus, and my memories of Christmas, shape-shift before my eyes. Holding them loosely allows them to breathe, allows them to become relevant to my constantly changing experience.

 

That being said, I’ll leave you with a blessing:

 

May the scent and sensation of Christmas light fill your spirit. And if your spirit is lost to you this Christmas, and you are unable to connect enough with your body to feel the goodness of the Holiday in your bones, because of depression or any other suffering you face, may you experience a breath of relief and a whiff of hope on the heels of this season. 

“There is a light in us that only darkness itself can illuminate. It is the glowing calm that comes over us when we finally surrender to the ultimate truth of creation: that there is a God and we are not it.” ~ Joan Chittister

The Cloth [We’re] Cut From (Part 3)

If I plan to spend time with someone cut from the same cloth as I, I prepare. Mentally, I rid myself of distractions in order to be able to engage with the waterfall of dialogue that is coming. Emotionally, I check in to be sure that my boundaries are stable. Physically, I get my workout in early because when these folks are in social mode, exercise isn’t the priority.

Connection is.

What we have loved, others will love, and we will show them how. ~ Wordsworth

I had the privilege of traveling with a friend from college named Dolly to her homeland of Puerto Rico in 2016. It was an intimate trip as her three young adult children were there, and we visited her (Puerto Rican) parents more than once. Her kids slept in & were glued to their phones nearly every morning. Dolly & I, however, being Cut From the same Cloth, woke early, excited for the day.

One day, she & I get in her rental & drive to a beach. On the way we attempt conversations in Spanish (my Spanish at the time was very broken), & then I ask questions to lead the conversation somewhere deeper. Once started, she sermonizes about her Capstone paper about Spanish literature. Her long, twisty hair is tinted with blonde highlights, & her voice melodic. The conversation–like most of our conversations– veers toward the spiritual. The passion rises in Dolly’s voice as she speaks of the Divine, of God, & of the relationship she has with “him”. Her perfect fingernails & the thin bands on her fingers reflect the light that sneaks through the trees along the Puerto Rican backroads. She is an intensely beautiful person & I revel in this time together.

That night, we are in the car again, & she talks about motherhood. Yet rather than cookie-cutter, her attitude is comical. Her words are along the lines of: “My son tells me everything about his sex life. I’m like, honey, I don’t want to know this. And then he says he doesn’t have a good relationship with his dad so who else is he gonna talk to.”

She says she doesn’t want to know, yet I see that she is holding space for that information from him. People like me don’t shut others down, especially not those who look up to us. Dolly didn’t want to know about her adult son’s sex life, but she never responded to the information by shaming him, or becoming angry. That’s not how we roll. I love us for it.

While in Puerto Rico I didn’t worry about using her space, her car, her food budget. I knew she wasn’t keeping score–because of who I am, & who I knew her to be. That’s a rare relief to experience: having your needs met in a foreign place without concern of racking up debts or resentment in the hostess.

That ability to be no-strings-attached generous, passionate about spiritual conversations, & a safe sounding board for young people to talk about issues that are often responded to with shame, show a commitment to preserving connection no matter the personal price. It is a skill common in people Cut From the same Cloth as I. 

We live to love & be loved. 

We are sensitive.

We are present (on good days).

We are unique.

We are undercover leaders.  

“…I keep dying because I love to live.” ~Maya Angelou

 

 

The Power of an Education

I recently read (read=consumed) Educated by Tara Westover. Several elements of the story she recounts in this award-winning memoir are familiar to me: a secluded childhood, a paranoid father, & fundamentalist religion. However, Westover’s education did not start until she began, as a teenager, to self-teach in order to take the ACT & be admitted to Brigham Young University. This is where my story drastically differs from hers.

My mother spent 14 years curating, delivering, & facilitating an enthralling education for myself & my two sisters. She bought entire curriculum sets with my father’s hearty approval (which I am certain were expensive) that we followed devotedly. As I recall, the middle school & junior high curriculum was heavy with historical fiction that brought Native American customs, the U.S.A. before, during & after the Civil War, & the World War-era to life via narratives about children my age. I peeled through chapters nearly every day, moving freely from my bed, to my desk, to sitting against the wall (this is an important detail as I am a kinesthetic person–sitting still is extremely difficult for me– now teaching children in an environment that offers only tables & hard chairs for 8+ hours a day), as my mind lit up with imagination.

In high school, the curriculum shifted to a classical program that was steeped in WASP ideology (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) & theology. Still, it emphasized reading entire books & I read The Social Contract, The Communist Manifesto, The Last Days of Socrates, & an entire book by Frederick Douglass (I do not remember which it was), among many others. I distinctly remember walking up & down our driveway as I read the entire Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin in one day. Despite the stimulating challenge of deciphering these texts, I rebelled against this curriculum primarily because I found it boring, lacking in diversity, & biased. I like to think that my arguments against it were well put together. The ability to put an argument together well: that came from my education.

Tara Westover’s book ends with a powerful & succinct attribution of all the changes she underwent, that wrought freedom in her life, to an education. That resonates profoundly with me because regardless of the content of the books I read, in reading entire works of classic literature, I learned to see a viewpoint through to its end, to follow lines of reasoning to logical conclusions, among other important skills.

Most of all, the thorough education that my mother brokered (& my father sponsored) for me prepared me for college, where I learned to trust my intellect over backward religious ideas, & to believe in the capability of knowledge to liberate & empower anyone–regardless of their social standing.

To this day, I love to read, to think, to argue. Those are gifts I attribute to my education. I believe every child deserves such an education. This belief is a big part of why I go to work every day. I am a teacher now, of various subjects, & passing on what I have learned–and continue to learn–gives me a sense of purpose. I hope that what I do empowers a new generation to harness their intellect for the sake of true freedom.

This Twilight

 

For the first time since we all found out that the man whom everyone should have known was a pedophile, is in fact a pedophile, I am allowing myself to be true to my memories. He was, of all the wealthy white men in the community where I spent my adolescence, one of the nicest.

When I first heard I guess my memories were buried deep & the shock of considering the abuse from the victim’s perspective kept me from remembering what I do, in fact, remember. The man was mildly interested in my life, far more interested in the lives of the teenage boys in my peer group, but never unkind to me. I remember that he was fun to be around, for the most part, & eccentric. One time when we were on a “mission trip” to Jamaica a little deaf girl was prancing about in front of him, mouthing words to an unknown song or the storyline to a drama played out in her head. Her flip-flopped feet kicked up dust in front of his perch on a concrete curb. Eventually he sat up, brushed off his bum, and said, clipping the end of each word, “this girl is beginning to annoy me.”

I don’t know why but that memory has surfaced & resurfaced in my mind since we heard the news of the sexual (I’m not sure exactly what they are) charges against him. Some part of me wants all my memories to serve as road signs that point to his perversion. I think it might be my ego, striving to reduce him to a sin, an other, rather than a complex human. But that memory is simple, clear, & could have been anyone. Plus, when I look through the photos from that trip, I see him there, talking to a chicken (Henrietta) with a bad leg in one image, holding a large insect & smiling in another.

I went to Jamaica three times as a teenager & each time was enlightening, & impacted me emotionally & spiritually. The second time I went there was a young boy named Ramoye with whom I formed a relationship (children with open hearts can form bonds surprisingly quickly–especially with adults–or almost adults, as I was–whose hearts are equally open). He was probably 11, with a broad nose, heavy brow, &, at the time I was there, a deep scar on his forehead. Just the look of him told me he was one of those beautiful boys who has yet maintained the emotions that society will soon convince him to bury & numb: compassion, shame, surprise, empathy, happiness, etc. (the full spectrum of human experience which males are not socially allowed to display, at least not publicly, after a certain age). We spent hours together, silently, as he was hard of hearing (if not deaf–I can’t remember which). We communicated via wordless yells, chalk drawings, & verbal cues. Our bond was sweet, deep, as were many of the bonds that I formed with students each time I went there (we visited the same school for deaf children 2 consecutive Januarys, & then returned two years after, for another week trip).

The last day of my second trip to Jamaica, those bonds felt like grappling hooks in my heart. I felt that there was more to learn, more connection to feel, more hugs & laughter to share. I was devastated that I had to leave.

The man who we now know is a pedophile–a man who has destroyed years of boys’ lives with exposure to unspeakable inappropriate things, creating wounds of festering shame & pain in them–was the last adult to linger with me near the children before we left. His wife wasn’t far ahead. The bus full of the other white travelers was at the top of the hill that separated the school facilities from the visitor’s quarters. I imagine them all watching me make my way up that hill, my eyes noticeably red. Halfway up I remembered Ramoye, the boy with the scar, & turned around to find him. I hadn’t said goodbye.

There in the school courtyard, he was perched on a metal step, his legs wide, his elbows on his knees, head hung low, great tears falling into the dust. I don’t remember now what I signed or maybe said to him. I’m sure it was “good bye”, “I love you”, “I’ll miss you”, or some combination. We embraced & I ran up the hill behind the man whom we now know has done unspeakable things to young boys.

When I boarded the bus, no one said anything. I felt embarassed by my emotion, but also proud. Proud that my heart was alive. Proud that I felt seen by these children & that they felt seen by me. I felt the treasure of connection in my heart & did not take it for granted.

I remember that the man looked at me & said something truly empathetic. I think it was, “Oh, Lydia,” with a sad face. I can’t remember exactly, yet I knew it was sincere. He acknowledged my emotion, which is more than anyone else did, then, or numerous other times when feelings poured down my cheeks around that group of people. It made me feel connected.

A red-headed man from this same group of people once gave me a warm embrace, the hearty, Santa Claus-esque kind, when I was feeling sad about leaving the children there in Jamaica. That is a sweet memory for me, even though I do not speak to that man or his family anymore. Those gestures of support shown toward me were few & far between. The man on the bus that day, the man we all now know is a pedophile who had lied to his community to cover up his pedophilia for decades, showed me compassion in a way that made me feel just as connected as the hug from the red-headed man had. They were both genuine beacons of support & acknowledgement. Both meant a lot to me.

I miss the children from Jamaica, but I do not wonder about their lives so much as I wonder about the swirl of good & evil that can exist in a man. I wonder whether anyone is all the way bad, or all the way good. I wonder if we have all been victims & abusers, or if abusers are a certain group of people that should be kept away from society’s children. I wonder how long it takes a child who has been abused to become the abuser. I wonder if anything can ever undo the evil that a man can do inside of one life.

We all seem to have darkness & light inside of us.

Isn’t it a breathtaking responsibility to live in this twilight?

 

Essence After Death

 

I remember the physical presence of my friend from childhood, who played on my basketball team, and was a romantic at heart. She passed away too young, like the most beautiful souls seem to do.

My last job was at a school for children with special needs. A little girl named Abby stood close to me not long after I started to work there. She looked up at me with blue eyes, clear as the sky is when the sun comes up after a snow, and asked, “is it okay if I give you a hug?”

There were endearing distances between each of her teeth and it nudged a memory in me. When I said yes, a smile lit up her face. Her mouth becaume unbelievably wide–gorgeous. It was when she wrapped thin arms around my waist that I realized what the memory was. The friend from childhood, who passed away over five years ago.

Her essence was there in my slender new student.

Memories from the earliest part of my life elude me completely. I have theories as to why: trauma, anxiety, hyperactivity. I only remember photos of my friend when she was the age of my student, one specific photo comes to mind of her dressed in a Wal-Mart princess costume with a silver tiara.

God, I miss her.

Abby, my former student, has labels placed on her: cognitively disabled, socially impaired, disgraphic, among clinical diagnoses that I didn’t have time to read up on. Inside of the school, her reality is good. Hovering teachers police social interactions, diffuse potential bullying.

I wonder if my friend’s reality would have been good. She was cognitively and socially impaired, I know that much. That was part of why I loved her, and chose to be as loyal a friend as I could be (loyalty definitely isn’t one of my core values. I work at it.). I have always felt freer, more at peace and enlightened in the company of “disabled” (but not really disabled) people, particularly children. Were she still alive I would be able to analyze her, apply words in my head that make sense of her. Yet she is dead, which  makes no sense at all.

Having loved disabled students (really loved them, mind you. Not just-for-a-paycheck love) doesn’t mean I am, was or ever will be exempt from ableism, just as having loved a man does not exempt me from sexism, nor does having loved people of color exempt me from racism (Ableism: . Urban Dictionary ). In fact, I identified ableism within myself more for the time I spent at that school. Hopefully, I will continue to identify this and move away from it.

I wish my friend was still here, not just so I could feel her arms wrap around me in a gangly hug like that from my student. I wish she was here so I could feel her essence, that bubbly uniqueness that challenged me to release my hold on society’s hierarchical view of humanity. Everyone had a fair chance on the playing field of her mind, which is rare to find! Most of all I wish I had extra opportunities to speak up on her behalf. I wish I had 1,000 chances more to defend her, claim her, stand by her side.

I try my best to do this every day. It’s selfish, really. It makes me feel alive to speak for those who can’t engage with the world on its’ rat-race level. Advocating for those marginalized by physical and/or cognitive differences brings a level of liveliness to my life. Society’s structures, biases, prejudices make me want to float away. Those who see things clearly (and more creatively!), ground me.

Abby’s hug, her itch for attention, physical stimuli, or whatever prompted her to request a hug, was a gift from the one already gone. I squeezed her meaningfully in return. For who she is, and who my friend was, I embraced her, and kissed the top of her head, crowned with golden hair.

 

 

Whiteness

The past epoch of my life is divided primarily into two time frames: before Chile (and an onslaught of mental illness that flared during & after that life-abroad experience) & after Chile.

Before Chile I wrote & spoke very little about how not to be an asshole to black folks. Some of my dearest friends were black at the time, but when I was with white folks, I rarely defended their experience or contradicted the pro-institution (pro-white supremacist) statements that white friends were made. At the time, I thought this was respect for my elders (most of my white friends, particularly the uber-conservative & racist ones, are well older than I). Now, I see that it was something I didn’t do because, due to my personality type & experiences I had within my family’s structure, & in the conservative protestant church, I identified with black Americans more than with white. Subconsciously, I equated my experience to theirs. It was a very naive & mistaken way to see things. No matter how great my suffering was as a young person, it was in no way comparable to the American black experience. That’s an apples to oranges comparison. Yet in some ways this time was beautiful in a simplistic, temporary way. I really just enjoyed being with people who I saw as being very similar to myself,. I was able to show great empathy & compassion without doing the same annoying shit most white people do in interactions with POC. .

At that time, I saw my role in undoing the horrendous & continual effects of the translatlantic slave trade, Jim Crow laws, & the global history of racism against POC, as primarily involving my own interactions with black folks.

Fast foward to AFTER Chile. I returned from 5+ months of life abroad with severe mental illnesses on my tail. Integration back into United States university culture only heightened the depression I had, & gave birth to a new illness: Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Not only was I wrestling with an illness I had known since adolescence, now I grappled an unfamiliar monster.

Needless to say, this mental/emotional cocktail brought the worst out of me. (Rumi said that the wounds are where the light come in, but I’d like to ask him what he has to say regarding the times when the wounds are where the darkness gooshes out? Anyway…)

I returned to Little Rock, hoping to reconnect with friends (white, black, hispanic, asian–everybody!). In interactions with black folks I immediately noticed strain. Strain that hadn’t been there a year & a half ago when I had moved away. I heard myself saying things to black friends that had made me cringe to hear white folks say in the past. Things like, well, you just have to work harder sometimes, or mentioning skin color off hand. Also, I would compulsively do things to “help” them & their families, buzzing around like a grandma on thanksgiving, instead of sitting down, listening, showing compassion & love–like FRIENDS do. Only recently did I realize that I had moved from treating black folks as subjects of their own stories, to objects of mine.

That, friends, is the ego. The ego LOVES to scapegoat minorities. (See: all of western history.)

Noticing the lack of health in these relationships, & my growing frustrations as I continued to buy gifts & “help” these friends (unsolicited, mind you! This was all me) without allowing myself to see them as humans & receive the beauty of their stories & relationships, (Note that not many of my white friendships were going well at this point, either. However, it is easier to dance around the ego in spaces that offer no hierarchy of being/ingrained subject-object bluepring for interaction.) Finally, I took steps back & lowered my interaction as much as possible with POC.

Sounds bad, doesn’t it? Real bad.

Yet I am glad I distanced myself. No one deserves a friend who gives & gives only to get more frustrated with the person who is passively recieving ! No one deserves to be the warm body in a race-based ego-tango!

I wish I had some gorgeous epiphany to share regarding race & what I have learned, & how enlightened I am now. I sure don’t, though. The insights into why I did what I did, what racism had to do with it, & what I needed to do to stop being white supremacy’s puppet, are what I wanted to share here.

I hope to circle back around, as my  heart heals & the ego’s sway over me weakens, to those beautiful relationships that had been built on mutual trust, shared experience, & radical generosity (on everyone’s part), despite GREAT odds. But I will wait. I will wait until I can interact without responding to external impulses. I will wait until I can love my friends as people, as sacred individuals, not as sounding boards for my latest black/white realizations or observations. I will wait until I can have a conversation in which I smile due to joy — not because I have to somehow acknowledge the blackness of another person. I will wait until my anxiety is healed enough that I can carry my own weight in a conversation with someone who is different from me, & refrain from perpetuating racism in my words & actions.

Sometimes, all I can do is try not to be another white asshole. That’s it. I can’t save black people from the continual injustices. That was never my job. (I couldn’t anyway–talk about ego.) Sometimes I can’t even INTERACT with black folks without wearing a forced “I’m white, you’re black,” smile! That’s the embarassing truth. Racism lives in me, fuck it.

I show myself grace because I am human. I am allowed to be human, to mess up continually. I am just not allowed to be racist & EVER think that is okay. I am grateful to artists like Tayari Jones, Ava DuVernay, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Austin Channing Brown, & others, who give me a window into a world that is far different from the one I live in. By grace, I can learn.

Watching When They See Us helped me see that my role is to engage whiteness & white supremacy’s hold on my people. The incarceration of those 5 innocent boys happened because of two white women who spun a racist story about them, & pinned them with blame. We have to reckon with this part of our history, our present, & our future. It is my job to engage white folks more than it is my job to “rescue” black folks. It is my job to rail against the system. To vote for black life. To shop at black-owned businesses. To champion black authors. To defend truth & justice at dinner tables, post offices, classrooms, etc. It is my job to look my (white) loved ones in the face & say, “that was racism. That needs to change.” Over & over. Until things get better. I don’t do these things because of what happened in the past. I do these things because I want to live a good life. I don’t want to be an asshole. I want life to be better for EVERY GOD DAMN HUMAN ALIVE.

Until there is justice for all, there will not be peace for any of us.

 

Donate now to help make a change.

 

“Don’t say, “Oh, it’s not really race, it’s class. Oh, it’s not race, it’s gender. Oh, it’s not race, it’s the cookie monster.” You see, American Blacks don’t actually want it to be race. They woud rather not have racist shit happen. So maybe when they say something is about race, it’s maybe because it actually is? … Don’t say “We’re tired of talking about race” or “the only race is the human race.” American Blacks, too, are tired of talking about race. They wish they didn’t have to. But shit keeps happening. Don’t say, “Oh, racism is over, slavery was so long ago.” We are talking about problems from the 1960s not the 1860s. …Finally don’t put on a Let’s Be Fair tone and say, “But black people are racist too.” Because of course we’re all prejudiced…but racism is about the power of a group and in America it’s white folks who have that power. … White folks don’t get denied bank loans or mortgages precisely because they are white and black juries don’t give white criminals worse sentences than black criminals for the same crime and black police officers don’t stop white folk for driving while white….Try listening, maybe. Hear what is being said. And remember that it is not about you. American Blacks are not telling you (non-American Blacks) that you are to blame. They are just telling you what is. If you don’t understand, ask questions. Sometimes people just want to feel heard.”

~Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah , 2013, p. 403-406

 

*DISCLAIMER: This post is about ME. This is a personal blog. Racism & the black experience in the USA is not, never has been, & never will be about me, or any other white person. These are my encounters, my growths, my shames, my confessions as they relate to my whiteness & the injustices I see (& have learned about having happened) in the lives of black Americans. I do not & will not speak for any POC ever, & should not be seen as a spokesperson for the black experience. Never lived it. Never will. I am extremely limited in communicating around this issue, but I wanted to share my experience. It haunts my days & nights.*