Saturday, May 31, 2014

From self-care to community care

I'm tired, y'all.  Not physically tired, and not drained soul is just tired.  It's telling me to be quiet, to hibernate for a moment, to sit and read books unrelated to the issues that I care about most deeply.  To write until I find some stillness.  Until I can put my finger on what it is that's nagging at me.  I took a long walk last night, and then sat outside with my journal until it was too dark to see the paper.  I wrote a little, but I mostly just sat and stared and thought.  It's been a long time since I've just sat and stared and thought.  Today, I went to yoga, and left a bunch of garbage I didn't need on my mat.  I feel lighter, and my thoughts are clearer.  I'm feeling about ready to re-engage with the world.

I'm friends with lots of awesome people.  I read a handful of really awesome blogs, and I have found/created a community of people who care a great deal about the same issues I am passionate about.  Considering there was a time I felt extremely isolated in my caring about these issues, this is awesome.  Really.  I wouldn't trade it for anything.  But -- it also means that my Facebook feed, my email, the conversations I's all centered around the same issues.  This week, those issues have exploded: sexism, rape culture, is all over everything.  People are talking.  Some people are listening.  Other people are being assholes.  Still others are not getting it.  Others are arguing and saying everybody has it wrong.

In other words -- hold on to your hats, people -- the internet is still, officially, in working order.  There continues to be the correct percentage of agreement, disagreement and trolling that seem to keep the internet waves in place. 

I posted here about something awesome and wonderful that happened for me.  That thing is still awesome and wonderful and important...but it also made me realize that there is still so much work to be done.  There is always more work to be done.  Always more, and more, and more work to be done.  In part, that's where the burnout comes from, right?  Seeing failure and seeing victories, and knowing that always, always, ALWAYS there is more. 

It's a hard thing to see your reality -- your often undiscussed, often ignored, often silenced reality -- reflected across every inch of everything you read.  It's hard to struggle with the reality of "other women are acting and speaking and telling their stories...and what am I doing?  Why can I not tell my story?  Why can I not act and speak and tell?"  It's hard to see some brief Twitter statement that makes you realize things about your own story.  (Full disclosure: I don't twitter or tweet, so I don't really understand it...but I've seen a lot of #yesallwomen tags posted to Facebook or in articles I read).  This reading, this witnessing, this awareness raising, this conversation-having...this is also a type of work.  It's hard work.  It's hard work because it's hard to witness the suffering, and the anger, and the injustice.  It's hard work because it's hard to reflect on your own suffering, and anger, and injustice.  It's hard work to see the ignorance, and the hatred, and the violence.  It's hard work to see the resistance, and the backlash, and the fighting against every step forward.  There are times when the resistance, the counter-arguments, the backlash feel like a push to keep me moving forward.  There are times when they feel like a slap in the face.  There are times when they re-ignite the spark of righteous anger in me, and there are times when it feels like a deep and painful violation.

I care about many issues.  We all do, right?  But I've realized: as deeply as I care about disability rights and advocacy, and as much as I care about calling out ableism, my relationship with this is entirely different because I am privileged enough to take a break from it.  When I need to take a break from advocating and discussing and reading about it, that's all I have to do: take a break.  What a tremendous privilege.

The issue with sexism, and women's rights, and rape culture, is that (to a large extent) I can't take a break from it.  (Okay, so compared to others, I am incredibly privileged in that I live in a pretty safe area, I am not facing violence or sexism in my home, I live in a country where I have basic human rights, etc, etc, etc).  But -- largely, I feel I can't take that break.  Even when I don't engage it mentally, the facts behind this issue live inside my bones.  They are part of me.  Taking a break feels like letting others down.  It feels like selling out.  It feel like not caring enough, not being active enough.  Taking a break means I'm not this big strong person who has a voice.  It means I fill that stereotype of victim.  It means that I am allowing myself to be silent or silenced.  Who knew there could be so much shame here?  Who knew this act of gathering strength could feel like so much more?  Therein lies the exhaustion.  Therein lies the burnout.  Therein lies the desire to hibernate sometimes: it feels like the only way to escape this reality, without having to face the shame of letting others know I need a break.

But the thing is: we all feel this way.  We have to.  There is no way we can all soldier on without this sense of overwhelm and exhaustion regarding whatever our passions or "hot button issues" may be. 

Of course, the response everybody has (including me) is "practice good self-care."  And let's say we do -- let's say we take deep breaths, and we meditate or go to yoga, or we write or run or walk or sing, or whatever it is we do that makes us feel whole again.  It's awesome, right?  But sooner or later, we're going to feel empty again.  Sooner or later, our cup will be empty, we will have forgotten our oxygen mask, we will be back where we started.

 We forget to mention, too, that activism IS self-care.  For me, learning to have a voice, learning to speak and write and be this person I am becoming -- that has been the most important act of self-care I could possibly imagine.  And yet -- there are also times that it is not the type of self-care that I need. 

So even when I write about self-care here, I am thinking and planning and community organizing in my head.  It is who I am.  So this is what I came to on my drive home from yoga today: this burnout happens in community.  As a result, I can only imagine that the cure also comes from community.  We need our activism to be a self-sustaining, self-perpetuating cycle of filling us up.  We need to find a community self-care.  I can think of few things more radical!

We need to find a way of caring for each other that moves like geese in formation: one of us will lead, and then, before we get tired, we'll fall to the back of the line and someone else will take our place.  There is no shame in falling to the back of that V -- it is expected.  We all take a turn, and we all care for those of us who have most recently run out on the frontlines. 

What would things be like -- how could we imagine this sort of world?  How could we create an intentional community in which this is the way we support one another?  How do we see and respect the burnout in others?  Can we name it for ourselves without shame?  Can we name it for others without insult? 

I don't have answers, friends.  But I'm willing to ask the questions.  I'm willing to call myself out on this shame and hesitation associated with stepping back and breathing.  I'm willing to say that what I need is individual self-care, but also community self-care.  Will you meet me there?  Can we step forward into this place -- and further still into whatever lies beyond -- together?

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Rise Over Run

When I was a kid, math time always made me cry.
I remember
crying at the kitchen table about x and y and
repeating six times seven is forty-two until
I didn’t have any more of a clue how to get to six times eight
but six times seven is something I never forgot
and I remember
squaring roots and finding decimals and looking for the sine
hoping it would signal me with what to do next
and the x and y were supposed to make
the slope on the graph of the paper with the little squares
but all I could see was how I could make
an amazing mosaic
if only I could use my colored pencils.

But nothing about me was ever square.
If you get to the root of me you’ll see
I’ve never been black and white
always lilac or magenta
or forest green with a lavender hue
that fades into a sunrise like a memory about to happen.
The words I speak could be
the best memory you’ve ever had but
if 42 is the answer to the universe I
memorized the answer without a clue how I got there
and I’m sure it involved
addition or division or
the mean of the range of something which cannot be said
so a random number was used instead.

And I remember
my father lamenting:
“Sweetie, it’s just rise over run.”
But the only rising I cared about was the rising of the sun.
The only run I wanted to find
was the running creek behind my house,
the wind's fingers running through my hair,
and I didn’t need math to learn
the slope from “I don’t understand” to
“look how stupid I am” was a steep one.
If I could use my colored pencils I’d draw you
the slip ‘n’ slide on the side of the mountain so steep
numbers are the last thing you need
to know which way you’ll fall.

And I remember writing lists
of how I could be better
do better
look better
seem better
even though the distance between Me and Perfect
was the only thing I knew how to measure.
So I kept rising and running
hoping I’d run into the perfection I ached to find,
but ran until I could neither rise nor run
so I laid in the valley praying
the shadow of the slope above me
would hide me in her shade.

But I kept rising and running
spending too long trying to find
my smile in the powders and brushes,
trying to find a body in the clothing I used to hide
from love I thought wasn’t mine.
I stormed from the bathroom, late for the day
angry that love was always subtracted and divided
but never multiplied or added.

So I went for a walk in the rain.
Felt the thunder in my chest
knowing I gave away my umbrella long ago
when I thought I could be protected
and I remembered
that when you multiply a negative by a negative
you get a positive
so Me times Rain, I thought,
might be my only way up.

And I remember
letting the rain undress me so I
could catch a rare glimpse
of the beautiful face
I didn’t know I had.

I paused, then doubted if it could be true, but I
let myself climb up the number line of momentary self-worth
and wondered what this thought would feel like
if I rocked it in the middle of the night.

This, I thought,
is the poetry of my body and
I remember
making a promise that one day
it will all add up
and I’ll run to embrace my heart for where it’s been
and rise
to be who I truly am.

Friday, May 16, 2014

And yet, joy happened, in spite of everything

Have you ever had something happen that feels so vast and wonderful that your heart seemingly stops and you aren't able to find your breath?  Something that makes tears stream from your eyes, your hands come to your face, and you weep alone in your kitchen, just because something so transformative has happened that there is no other way for your body to express the intensity of your emotion?
I have.

And, in that moment, a burden I did not fully know I was carrying was dispersed like the seeds of a dandelion being blown away by a breath of love and justice.

I wish I could find the words to tell this story.  I wish I had the ability to lay it all out in its ugliness, its guilt, and its shame -- but I don't.  I wish I could find the words to say what it's like to have a moment when you can not only see the light at the end of that tunnel, but also learn that the light is the sun, and you can bask in a warmth that fills your soul and every cell with heart and with peace.  My heart resonates with Anne Lamott's words: "if people wanted me to write more warmly about them, they should have behaved better."  These words are truth.  And yet, it's so hard to break through to find the courage to write it.  The words are there.  The courage is not.  The love is there.  The desire is there.  And yet, I just can't tell the story in the way I want to tell it.  It's too complex.  Not here.  Not now.

And yet, there is change here that I have to tell about.  And yet, I have found a sense of wholeness and a sense of rightness I thought I and my world were missing.  The world has changed in ways no one I know now can see, and I can claim a piece of ownership and agency in making that change.  There is a change that has occurred as a result of my actions that is good, and is right.  It is a small change...but it is right.  I am choosing to let myself feel proud of that.  I am choosing to let myself feel a sense of strength, and of agency, and of pride.  I have a sense -- finally -- that my suffering, and my pain was not for nothing.  I have a voice.  I am able to use it.  I did.  And it was heard. 

I used it.  And it was heard. 

When we suffer -- when something painful, or awful, or challenging happens -- so often, what we want is for our suffering to be acknowledged.  We want to be heard.  We want our suffering to matter.  When we are in pain, and our suffering goes unnoticed or unacknowledged, there is an overwhelming sense that we don't matter.  Our suffering doesn't matter.  And that?  You internalize that.  You carry that around with you.  Maybe you find one, or two, or a handful of people who tell you that your suffering, your story is important...but it's hard to compete with the stench of the systemic issues surrounding you that are hell-bent on keeping you in your place: quiet.  Small.  Ignored.  Not mattering.

You tell yourself that it matters.  You do the things you can to feel strong.  You seek support, and you try to talk and tell your story...but there is still this huge institution holding you down and telling you that your voice will not be heard.  That your suffering is wrong.  That you are wrong.  That you do not matter.
This is the reality I have lived with for several years now.  And yet -- suddenly, unexpectedly, this week, I got a small piece of news -- just a couple paragraphs -- that said, essentially and indirectly: you were heard.  Your suffering matters to us.  We cannot change your suffering, but we'll change our ways so others won't suffer in the same way. 

And, in reality, nothing can be done about my pain.  It is done.  It is in the past. 

But acknowledgment of pain is huge.  It is enough.  It is enough for me to believe that my suffering mattered.  That I matter.  That I have a voice, and I used it, and that I was powerful enough, and loud enough, and mattering enough to make change happen.  I had a hand in the fact that other people will not be hurt in the same way.  This happened.  It really happened.  I helped in making change happen.  Real change.  I helped to make that happen, in spite of everything.

I hate (HATE) the cliches people throw at difficult situations.  "Everything happens for a reason!" sends shivers up my spine, and "every cloud has a silver lining" makes me want to punch somebody.  I know you may be thinking them -- and even, in my struggle for words, I found myself falling back on these cliches.  But that's not what happened.  Everything did not happen for a reason.  This happiness, this relief, this change and justice, this mattering I have found is not the silver lining.  Why?  Because if there is a silver lining there, it is because I made it.  It is because I put it there.  If there is a silver lining, it is because of my actions, and because of my own strength and courage and resilience.  If there is a silver lining, it's because I mined that silver, ground it up, and I painted the inside of that cloud.  If all of this happened for a reason, it is because I made the reason as I went along.  It is because I built that reason from the ground up.  It is because I have found change, and I have found a sense of peace -- and also of justice.  I have found this -- I helped in creating this -- in spite of everything.