Thursday, May 28, 2015

Beautiful Anyway

When the realization finally hits you
that there are things you can't outrun
you will want to lay your body
on the pavement of a deserted street at midnight.
Splay your broken body like chalk outlines laid
in the line of danger that's already passed.

You will come to know the black sky at midnight.
You will know the warm, black expanse of asphalt under you,
you will know the boundless nothing
and the promise of something,
you will know the way that surrender turns on all the taps.
Will wring you dry.
When you give up the chase, you will know
the ways that soaking in the danger
while lying open to the heavens
will only put a wedge in your heart to keep it open.
Don't run.
No matter the ways you try
you will still only ever feel

It is true that there are things you can't outrun.
Like ocean waves in the middle of the ocean.
Like the way the air carries the atoms of dinosaurs,
of smoke, of gunpowder, of bombs,
into our lungs.
Like the way we let destruction beat our hearts like war drums.
Like the way we smell of babies,
of spring breezes, of beautiful anyway,
there are things you can't outrun, like
this life.
It makes breathlessness an art form.
Makes marathons a way of being
so we keep running,
believing answers will be somewhere in the next mile
until these things will stop you
like cars on I-95, they will stop you
in the middle of the highway
for no fucking reason
except to survey the wreckage.

You stop running when you realize that you are the wreckage.
That you are the traffic
and you are the accident
it will take your breath away.

This poem is not meant as apology.
I keep trying to write it like forgiveness
like moving on
like looking the past in the face and not blinking first,
but the words drop like sorry.
Like secrets, like whispers, like tears,
like no one ever told me the ways feelings
would rise in my body like smoke.
Fill my lungs like I'm burning from the inside out,
this gutted cathedral,
this ransacked temple,
this body that burns into emptiness that envelops,
these words are not apology, but story.
Not apology, or breaking or broken,
it is true that you can't outrun the burning.
That you will want to lay yourself down on the asphalt at midnight
to soak in the warmth left over from the day.
It is true that you can't outrun the blisters
that are forming on your feet.
Can't make your feet strike the pavement more softly.
Can't lose the things
you carry with you.

Stop running.
Let the footsteps you left behind be absorbed
into the unforgiving places,
your power
is here in the standing.
In the not blinking first.
This body
is the home you must always come back to
so we'll stand in the smoke.
We'll touch the ashes.
We will witness the ways we must burn ourselves
to the ground. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Dear school teachers, administrators, and officials (a post on dress codes)

Dear school teachers, administrators and officials:

We've got a problem.

As I'm sure you're aware, we have a problem in this country with sexual violence.  In the US, there are 293,066 people sexually assaulted every year.  One in six US women will experience an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.  In other words, a person is sexually assaulted in the US every 107 seconds.  Of those assaults, it is estimated that only 68% are ever reported.  This all boils down to the unfortunate fact that 98% of rapists will never spend a day in jail.* 

Now, I know you're good people.  I know you hear this and, like any good person, you say, "well that's just terrible!"  You shake your head and wonder what we can do about such an epidemic.  You think about the loved ones you know who have been sexually assaulted.  You worry about your daughters.  You probably believe, when confronted with this data, that something needs to be done.  Don't you?  It is undeniable that we've got a problem. 

We've got a sexual violence problem.  We've got a rape-on-campus problem.  We've got a rape-in-the-military problem.  We have a rape-in-our-homes problem.  We have a straight-up violence against women problem all across our nation.**** 

Although you may not realize it, you, as educators of young minds and bodies can play a role in beginning to turn this ship around.  However, from where I sit, it seems that you are pushing us ever further, ever faster, ever deeper into this place that sexualizes, shames, and devalues female bodies. 

Allow me to connect the dots. 

I'm talking about dress codes.  I'm talking about the ways we are educating our women and, more importantly, I'm talking about the ways we are educating our men. I'm talking about the fact that our girls and young women are being taught that their education is not as important as their male classmates.  That their female bodies are a distraction, that they are shameful, that they need to be covered, that they are disgraceful and problematic, purely because they are existing in the same physical space as boys.  Need I remind you that the most important lessons you are teaching are not the ones on the lesson plans?

Violence against women is perpetuated in part by the idea that women's bodies are not our own.  If 12-year-old boys are taught that girls should be made to cover up their bodies because they are a distraction, what happens from there?  If 14-year-olds are taught that boys don't have the self-control to focus on their academic work because a girl's shoulders are exposed, what will stop him from acting on an impulse in 5 or 10 years?  When our boys learn these lessons today, they will become our future judges, doctors, and policemen who continue to shame and silence women who have been sexually assaulted. If our boys have been taught that women are sexual beings whose shoulders, or legs, or clothing invite a sexual response, what will stop him from raping someone 5, or 10, or 20 years from now?

It seems to me that if our boys are taught and shown that girls are sexual objects who should cover up; that it's not his fault if he can't control his impulses; that his wants and needs are more important than her comfort, her sense of self, her education...then we are not teaching him anything but to objectify and devalue women.  What will stop him from blaming his sister, his friend, his wife when she is raped?  Are we not directly teaching him to ask her what she was wearing?  Where in this message are we teaching him to believe her, that it's not her fault?  We are not setting our men up to be in a position to stop the violence.  We are never giving them the opportunity to learn that women's bodies are not objects that he can control.

This is root and the cycle of rape culture. 

Perhaps you are saying, "but that's not the same.  You're jumping way too far ahead here.  You can't jump from dress codes in middle school to rape."  And perhaps you're right.  But where is that line and when is it crossed?  Where is it along that line from sexualization and objectification to sexual violence that is "too far?"  How is it that you plan on teaching that sexualization and objectification of girls' bodies is okay, but acting on it is not?  How do you plan on teaching that it's okay to control girls' bodies by making them cover up for the sake of boys, but it's not okay for men to physically or emotionally control women?   Modeling is one of the most powerful ways of teaching, and the ways you are modeling do not teach the second half of those messages.  If dress code enforcement is in your curriculum, where are you including this other essential information?

When young people graduate from your high schools and go to college, 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted**.  Approximately 35% of all rapes occur for women between the ages of 18 and 24***.  When I was in graduate school, at age 24, I was sexually assaulted.  After several months of attempting to deal with the ongoing harassment that occurred following the assault, I finally approached my advisor and program administrators about my concerns.  It was then that I was told not only that they could not help me, but also that I should have known better than to "go to the bar with [my] boobs hanging out."

I know what you're thinking: "I would never do something like that."  But is your message truly different? 

Five years later, I carry the impact of those words in my body.  The impact of those words says, "you deserved it."  The echoes of those words tell me that it was my fault, that my body and my choices made me a target.  That I asked for it.  The impact of this message is that this body that I live in -- this body essentially puts me on the waiting list for violence.  Five years later, I still feel the need to explain to you that I wasn't wearing a low-cut shirt.  Five years later, I can't wear shirts like the one I wore that night.  For me and 17.7 million other women,* this is an incredible weight we need to carry. 

You are responsible for educating our girls, and I urge you to consider what you are truly teaching.  Is the message that I received different from the one you are teaching our middle and high school girls?  If one of your girls came to you with a similar concern, would you respond differently?  Five years from now, will the girls you made change their clothes today still be carrying the message of shame and devaluation you gave them?  When you make girls change their clothes, you are preparing them for the message that any future violence is deserved.  Your message is not subtle: it is simply the precursor to the message I received.  Can we not do any better than to prepare our girls for future violence at the hands of men?  

Last semester, I taught an undergraduate course at a local college.  It was an evening course, and one night, an incident with a male union representative occurred that made me feel unsafe being in the building following my class.  Because of both his overtly and covertly threatening behavior, I as a woman felt unsafe being alone, and felt unsafe walking across campus to my car.  I requested increased security presence to be in the building, and I requested an escort to walk me to my car.  While this was approved by the chair of my department, it was declined by the head of security.  This resulted in several weeks of me advocating at various levels within the college, fighting for the right to feel safe walking to and from my car.  Because of this incident and the way it was handled, I made the decision not to return to teach another semester. 

Do you see the ways in which a female's body -- a female's right to safety was ignored here?  Can you see the ways in which I as a woman felt as though my bodily autonomy did not matter?  Your students are these future women who face lost educational and career opportunities, yes, but more importantly, your students are these future men.  Your students are the future directors of security denying a woman's experience and denying her right to simple preventative measures that could make her feel safe.  Your students are the future union representatives making women feel threatened (and laughing about it).  Do you want your male students to grow into the adults that perpetuate a culture that makes women feel unsafe?  Can you say that you feel okay about your young men growing up, unable to hear women's fear and thereby denying women the right to feel her bodily autonomy is protected?  Do you want your young women giving up job opportunities because she feels unsafe, unsupported, and disrespected?  I know I want more for your students.  I want more for their future.  Our young women deserve better.  Our young men deserve better. 

Maybe we can stop to consider that objectification and sexualization of female bodies is violence.  Making girls cover up their bodies, making them miss educational opportunities for the sake of boys...those behaviors are nothing more than precursors to violence.  These actions and beliefs are cogs in the wheel of oppression, and unfortunately, you are an essential piece of building the machine.

My dear school administrators and officials, the fact that we have a problem is undeniable.  The good news here is that you have a choice.  Do we continue to place the burden of shame on our girls?  Do we continue to place the onus of blame on their young, growing, developing bodies?  Or do we gift our young boys with knowledge and personal responsibility as we shape them into the young men we know they can be?

As we move forward together, the choice is yours.



* Statistics from the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN) website:
**Statistics from Know Your IX website:
****And yes, men and boys get raped too, but for the purposes of this post, that's not my focus.  

Monday, May 18, 2015

The truth that's hard to say aloud: On inhaling the Kool-Aid

As soon as I walk out of the office, I am hit with a wave of heat and humidity I missed in the too-cold air conditioning of the office complex.  I take off my sweater and enjoy the feeling of the heat on my bare shoulders.  My car has sat in the sun all day, and the outside temperature is registering as 83 degrees.  It's humid, it's hot, and the AC in my car is broken, so I have the windows rolled all the way down.  It's the kind of overcast that has a glare, so I put on my cheap, semi-stylish sunglasses.  It's been a long day and I've got a headache.  I pull out of the parking lot to the first stoplight and lay my head back on the headrest, breathing deeply and letting go of the tension of the day. 

The light is a long one.  As I sit, I feel someone staring at me to my left.  Instinctively, I turn.  Two men in a big white van grin, wink, and mouth "hey, baby" from behind their closed window.  I roll my eyes behind my sunglasses, put my head back against the headrest, and sing along to "Uptown Funk" on the radio.  I feel their eyes continuing to bore into the side of me, and watch them inch forward in my peripheral vision.  Assholes, I think.  My heart rate increases, and I can feel the tension pulsing through my shoulders, but I try to look bored -- like I don't even notice, much less care.

Suddenly, there's a loud, low, noise that sounds like something between a scream and a bark.  I jump, startled, and turn reflexively towards the sound.  Their window is down now, and the man in the driver's seat is leaning over the man in the passenger's seat, laughing at whatever sound it was he just made, and my infinitely satisfying reaction to it.  (My planned ignoring skills are excellent, aside from my incredibly awful startle reflex).  "Hey mama," he calls.  "Whatchudoin'?"  I face forward, lean my head against the headrest one final time, and turn up my music.  I consider rolling up the window, but decide against it.  They continue laughing and catcalling.  "Ow ow!"  "Come on baby, don't be that way." 

The light turns green and as I begin driving, I watch them in my rearview mirror.  They pull into the lane behind me, and for a moment, I panic that they are following me.  You've got a long ass way to go if you're following me, I think.  A few miles down the road, they pull off to the right into an Exxon station.  I breathe a sigh of relief.

I continue down the highway and, as I continued thinking about it, my thoughts went like this:

(1) Assholes.  Stupid effing asshats thinking they can treat me that way.  What the fuck is wrong with people?

(2) They could tell they made you nervous.  Why did you get so nervous?  Why can't you just handle this and let it go and not let it bother you?  Why can't you get a grip on your stupid startle reflex?  Why can't you just be a normal person?

(3) What did they even see that made them do that anyway?  I mean seriously, it's not like you look THAT good today.

Crap.  Dammit all to hell, y'all. 

So the thing is, this happened a week ago.  It's not that I was unduly upset by this incident.  It's not even that I've thought about it all that much.  What I've thought about a bunch is my reaction to it, and the way I have thought about trying to understand my reaction.  I understand life best through my fingers, so I kept thinking that I should write about it.  However, here are two final embarrassing points I need to share:

(1) As I thought about writing this, I stopped myself.  Don't write about this again, I thought.  You write about this shit all the time.  People aren't going to believe you anymore if you keep writing about it.

(2) My next thought was: Besides, people might think you're people are going to think you think you're hot stuff because this type of thing happens to you all the time.

And I repeat: crap.  Dammit all to hell, y'all.  Just dammit all to hell. 

Last year, I wrote here about an incident where I had similar reactions.  I wrote about how we are all swimming in this polluted water and how we can't truly ever see the water in which we swim.  I know this.  I know that sometimes I can see the water -- sometimes I can see the sexism, and the patriarchy, and the rape culture, and all the other isms we learn, seemingly by osmosis.  I also know that sometimes, I can't see the water, because it is all around me, it is in me, it is me, and it takes those "holy crap" moments to be able to step back and see the ways the water has infiltrated my being.    

I'm not going to lie: it's disappointing.  It makes me angry.  It makes me sad.  It makes me think real change is never really going to happen, because if getting catcalled in my car leads me to ponder the ways in which my clothing and level of attractiveness invited it...what chance do we have of other people actually checking their biases and assumptions and thoughts?  I don't know where change starts, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't start with me sitting at a stoplight getting catcalled.  Right?

But maybe it starts now.  Maybe it starts in the discussion afterwards.  Maybe it starts in this embarrassing honesty where I admit that maybe I didn't drink the Kool-Aid, but somehow inhaled the stuff.  Maybe change comes when we have the insight and the humility to admit: I have internalized this shit.  It is part of me.  There are ways in which my thoughts and (potentially) my actions are part of the problem. 

Maybe we say: It's not my fault that I have learned these thoughts, that I have these feelings, that I have soaked this pollution in through my pores.

Maybe we say: It is through honesty, and insight, and humility that I name and publicly renounce the ways I have internalized this stuff that is not mine, that I do not want, that does not fit me and who I want to be.

Maybe change starts when we say: I will speak truth to my experiences, time after time, even if I am alone.

Or maybe it starts when we say: I will speak truth to the bullshit I see, and to the bullshit I have internalized, and I will name it, again and again, until I no longer swallow these lies as truth.

I wrote here about Audre Lorde's quote: "We are taught to respect fear more than ourselves.  We've been taught that our silence will save us, but it won't."

Our silence will not save us.  So why not speak?  Why not speak the real truth -- not the bold, feminist truth we want to believe...and not the things we think we're supposed to believe....and not the truth our parents wanted us to believe...but the honest truth.  The one that's hard to say aloud.  Why not speak that truth?


In the mindfulness group I am running, I find myself returning repeatedly to this point: the practice of mindfulness is simply the practice of bringing ourselves back to the present moment, without judgment. The practice is nothing more than noticing the current state of the mind -- as soon as you notice that your mind has wandered, you are engaging the practice.

More often than not, my patients tell me, "I really struggled with it, I don't think I can do mind just kept wandering."

I ask them, "did you notice that your mind was wandering?"

"Well yes," they say, "but then it would wander again.  I couldn't get it to focus.  I would just keep worrying, or thinking, or daydreaming, and then bring myself back to my breath, and then I would worry again."

"Congratulations!" I tell them.  "You got so much practice in!  Each time you noticed your mind wandered, you were practicing.  Each time you chose to focus on a breath, you were practicing.  That is the practice.  There is no goal, there is no perfect, there is only practice."

"Yeah," they say, "but I didn't relax."

"Mindfulness isn't about relaxation," I remind them.  "It's about making the choice to be fully present with what is here.  You were able to be present with the fact that your mind is busy, that it is wandering - how wonderful for you! Maybe next time you notice your mind wandering," I suggest, "you congratulate yourself.  Thank yourself for noticing.  That practice is hard -- your effort is worthy of your praise, your love, and your attention."


So maybe -- maybe -- maybe this is also a social justice practice.  A compassion practice.  An awareness practice. 

Maybe this way of allowing ourselves to admit our internal demons, or biases, or questions, is the way we move ourselves towards justice.  Maybe this is the practice: this truth-telling, this examination of what is here -- truly here -- inside us.

Maybe we practice by allowing ourselves to say: "I am a feminist woman, and I downplayed the legitimacy of the catcalling based on my perception of my attractiveness."

Or maybe we acknowledge: "I am a woman who has been sexually assaulted, and I discount my discomfort and my reactions because of it."

Or maybe we ask ourselves the question: "As a white woman, how did the fact that those two men in the van were Latino influence my reaction?  What would have been different if they were white?  What if they were black?"

Perhaps we let ourselves make lists, like the ones I made at the beginning, just to bring awareness to the ways the polluted water is living in our bloodstream. 

And once that list is made, maybe we congratulate ourselves.  We thank ourselves for noticing our biases, and our weaknesses, and our sore spots, and our strengths.  We acknowledge the hard work we are doing in moving ourselves towards awareness and compassion, for that practice is surely worthy of our praise, and our love, and our attention.  

Saturday, May 9, 2015

"How my relationship with my body is like my relationship with socks"; OR "Who feels self-conscious in sneakers?!?"

So the other morning, I sliced my finger while attempting to chop pineapple.  I knew immediately that I was probably going to need stitches, because there was immediately blood everywhere (except for the pineapple!  Can I mention that I saved the pineapple?  There was blood on the floor, the counter, the sink...and no blood on the pineapple.  That was a win).

At any rate, I knew immediately that I was going to need stitches because my kitchen went from "clean environment in which to prepare food" to "biohazard" in exactly 0.2 seconds.  However, I also knew that I was supposed to be leading a therapy group (on mindfulness, no less) in an hour and a half, and there was no way I was going to get there on time.  I spent a good 30 minutes unsuccessfully attempting to stop the bleeding until begrudgingly concluding that stitches were just going to have to be a thing.  I called my trainee, told her she had a great learning opportunity to fly solo until I could get there, called my colleague to ask her to cover the on-call position for me, grabbed my bag and a couple extra paper towels for my still bleeding thumb, and headed to the car. 

I got in, started the car, put my seatbelt on, and put the car in reverse.  "Dammit!" I exclaimed.  "I didn't put on makeup."

So I did what any reasonable, smart, down-to-Earth, sensible, feminist woman would do: I parked the car, took me and my bloody thumb back inside, and I grabbed my make-up. 


Several Marcaine injections and 4 stitches later, I got back in my car, put on the blasted make-up, and drove to work.  I walked into that mindfulness-based therapy group an hour late, humbled, with a thumb bandaged to a size that may have developed its own gravitational pull...but I was wearing make-up.  So there, Universe. there.

I tell you this because, frankly, I find it embarrassing.  I mean, it's not like it was a huge medical emergency and I risked my life for a little mascara, but if we're being honest here, it's a little ridiculous.  Turning my kitchen into a biohazard zone was no big deal, heading for stitches was no big deal...but going into work without make-up?  Hold the phone!  Let's get THAT cleared up first and foremost. 

I think it's hard because I am a reasonable, smart, down-to-Earth, sensible, feminist woman, and I also have fallen hard for this idea that I need to be wearing make-up to be attractive, and that I need it to look professional, and that I need it every damn time I leave the house.  I don't have a problem with make-up.  I don't have a problem with wanting to feel beautiful, and using make-up if it makes you feel the  type of beautiful you want to feel.  I don't even have a problem with being really into make-up.  If it is your choice, and you know without a fraction of a doubt that every time you put on make-up, you are doing it because you want to do it for you and you like the way it makes you feel beautiful, or confident, or professional, or grown-up, or young, or whatever...then for god's sake, do it and be you without apology! 

The other piece of this equation for me is that it's not just make-up.  It's looking "nice" in, I need to look "nice" all the time.  

As in, I actually feel self-conscious in sneakers.  I feel self-conscious in t-shirts.  And if they aren't "nice" jeans, I probably don't own them.

I mean, seriously.  Who feels self-conscious in sneakers?  

Truth be told, if you see me in jeans/t-shirt/sweatshirt/ can guarantee that I tried on several incarnations of that outfit before settling on the one in which I appear.  I had to go to the bank and the grocery store today.  It's Saturday.  I was going alone.  I wasn't planning on meeting Mr. or Ms. Right at Safeway.  I wasn't even planning on staying long...but before I left the house, I not only changed my outfit (ahem....twice....) but I also put on mascara. 

And get this...I did all that and then I used the ATM and the self-checkout line.

This is getting embarrassing.

At any rate, my personal problem with this issue is two-fold: (1) I feel like I can't leave the house without wearing make-up/"looking nice" and (2) I don't remember choosing this. 

My rational psychologist mind says, "Well, we know the correct treatment for this would be exposure with response prevention" (meaning, put on the fucking sneakers and leave the house without letting yourself change, working under the assumption that any anxiety or discomfort will settle with repeated exposure).  But it's also just not that easy: there are lots of assumptions, and feelings, and thoughts, and lots and lots of learning that will need to be unlearned.  Honestly, the concept of not wearing make-up/not "looking nice" feels radical, and I find it disappointing that such a fundamental thing as leaving the house in a t-shirt on a Saturday would feel so foreign to me.


Playwright Eve Ensler starts one of the monologues in "The Vagina Monologues" with the sentence: "I am worried about vaginas."  And she ain't kidding.  There's a lot to worry about when we're talking about vaginas...but that's not what I'm talking about (today at least). 

I guess you could say that I'm worried about bodies.  I'm worried about our bodies, and our relationships with our bodies...and more specifically, I'm worried about my body and my relationship with it.  We all have some sort of challenge in our relationship with our body at some point, for any variety of reasons, and I am no different.  If my body had a Facebook page, our relationship status would be set to "It's Complicated" on the good days, and "Autodidactpoet and her body are no longer in a relationship" on the fair ones.  On the bad days, Facebook doesn't even have a category that would encompass what that relationship looks like. 

Lately, me and my body have had more and more "no longer in a relationship" days...which is tricky, because it looks like we're still an item, right?  It feels like we're still a thing, but we're not. 

Realizing you have a shitty relationship with your body is one thing: I rationalized it to myself for a long time.  "Every woman has a crappy relationship with her body," I thought.  I blamed the media, and the patriarchy, and the fact that my grandmother criticized my fingernails.  I blamed the fact that my childhood consisted of being critiqued for wearing the wrong clothes and praised for having pretty ears.  I blamed the fact that I never really felt like my body was mine, or like it was anything more than a series of parts.  I mean, hell, I grew up admiring Belle and Jasmine, and I was a Barbie for Halloween one year (which MAY be the most embarrassing thing to admit).  Let's blame Disney and children's toys, too!

However, even with all of that, it's another realization entirely when you recognize that a more accurate statement is that you don't really have a relationship with your body at all.  It feels like my body is a thing that is attached to my head, but that is the extent of it, you know?  It's like I do not have a relationship with my body any more than I have a relationship with my socks: I don't particularly like socks, and I sometimes feel life would be better without them, but once I put them on for the day, I don't notice I'm wearing them unless something is wrong.  The same is true for my body: I don't particularly like it, but once I get going for the day, I don't notice I'm living in it unless something goes awry.

Here's a story:

It is 8:45PM.  I am driving home from a very long, very full, very stressful day.  It's dark, and my thoughts are racing, and I'm frustrated that I am getting home so late.  I feel anxious, my mind is going in rapid spirals towards deeper and darker places, and everything feels on edge.  I feel like my body is an exposed and raw nerve ending, and what I honestly want is to lie for 20 minutes in a dark room with a blanket over my head. 

Here's one ending:

I drive home.  I take the dog out, take a shower, and change into comfortable clothes.  I sit down and read for a while, and then realize at 11:30pm that I haven't eaten since lunch time.  I eat a handful of grapes and go to bed.

This happens.

Here's another ending:

As I'm driving, I take a breath and allow myself to "drop in" to my body.  It's brief...20 seconds, maybe.  As I do this, I realize that I haven't eaten in 10 hours, and I'm actually really hungry.  I eat a granola bar, and some of the edge is taken off.  The thoughts stop swirling, and I feel like I can breathe.  I get home, take the dog out, take a shower, and change into comfortable clothes.  I make myself some tea and eat a banana.  I sit down and read, and then go to bed.

This, I'm learning, can also happen.  It's not perfect...far from it.  But it's a hell of a lot better than the first ending, no?  And, perhaps more importantly, I felt powerful.  I felt as though I enacted a change where one was needed.  I felt in control, and grounded, and capable.

All because I took a breath.  All because I allowed myself to be in my body.  All because of 20 seconds.


I am worried about our bodies.  I am thinking about my body, and I am worried about the ways I live in it, and the many, many ways I do not.  I'm thinking about how to choose the ways of inhabiting my body, and if I could start over, what choices I would make.  I'm thinking about where I go from here.

As you may remember, my word of the year is Powerful.  Powerful is turning out to be harder than brave, I think.  Brave was a series of actions.  Brave meant moving, doing, acting, propelling myself forward in spite of fear.  Brave meant pushing myself to do and be and, while it wasn't easy, there were discrete tasks I could find and do that made me feel Brave.

Powerful is different.  Powerful is a feeling that is deep and internal, and currently elusive.  Powerful starts with being in my body, and making the choices that are right for me then: perhaps the choice to wear make-up or not.  To "look nice" or not.  To wear the t-shirt and sneakers or not.  To truly be present, here, in this body and this space, grounded, and alive.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

On Baltimore: How do we care for ourselves?

Here is one thing that is true: I want to do ALL the things.  I want to march, and protest, and write, and read important people's thoughts about Baltimore, and about the Black Lives Matter movement, and about the death of Freddie Gray and the way everything is unfolding.  I want to have ALL the conversations.  I want to do something that matters, and mostly, I want to stop everything from hurting.  It's not realistic, I know I can't, I know that this pain is perhaps a part of the process that moves us towards justice, but damn.  It just hurts.

Here is another thing that is true: This weekend, I had to deal with a client emergency.  On Friday, right before I left work, I had to have a conversation with a mother in which I told her that her 14-year-old is likely never going to have any functional communication, is not going to be able to master toileting independently, and she isn't going to "snap out of" her developmental disability.  I had to call Child Protective Services last week for suspected abuse of a child, and I had to sit with my traumatized little guy and try to figure out what was happening.  I ended my week exhausted.

Here is one final truth: I feel guilty, and lazy, and like I don't care enough.  I feel like I don't put my words and beliefs and thoughts into action enough.  I can convince myself that I am apathetic, and I am angry at apathy.  I get angry at myself that I can't do all the things, or even most of the things.  Honestly, I can't even do some of the things: what I can do is I can have conversations, and I can read, and I can donate some, and I can educate myself.  I like to dedicate my yoga practice to something or someone, because I believe that the energy and intention and effort goes I dedicated my yoga practice today to Baltimore and to justice and to peace. 

But what I did for real this weekend?  I handled the emergency client situation.  I ate ice cream with a friend.  I enjoyed the sunshine.  I talked about stuff.  I zentangled.  I went to yoga.  And I spent a hell of a lot of time going in circles in my head.  In terms of actual, tangible, real, meaningful change I took part in...there was none.  I am having a hard time letting my brain let go of all of the events in Baltimore this week.  I am having a hard time letting my brain focus on other things, because I am overwhelmed and feel guilty about the privilege of being able to let go. 

I'm not alone in this, right?  We are, many of us perhaps, in this place.

So I'm going to go all psychologist on you, and I'm going to focus on what I know.  I know people, and I know stories, and I know mental health, and so I'm going to write about self-care.

I have written about self-care before.  I think a good deal about how we as "helpers" (be that psychologists, or medical professionals, or social workers, or clergy, or activists) talk about, implement, and support one another in taking care of ourselves.  I can only really speak from the psychologist angle, but from what I have seen, we don't.  We don't talk about it, we don't implement it, we don't support one another in it, and frankly...I think that's really messed up.

But that's not entirely what I'm writing about now, although it may be a piece of it.  Really, I think that the way we talk about self-care is messed up.  I think the way we conceptualize self-care is wrong, and I'm pretty sure it needs a do-over.  Think about it.  What you normally see is this:

How to do self-care: (1) Do something nice for yourself.  Take a bath with candles and smelly things that make you feel good.  Get a massage.  Take yourself out to eat.  (2) Get exercise.  Spend time in the sun.  (3) Eat healthy food.  Eat regularly.  Be healthy.  (4) Have a gratitude practice.  (5) Spend time with people who make you feel good.  (6) Sleep.  Do it regularly, well, and often. 

...and that's about it.  Right?  Am I making this up? 

I think what we're doing here is we're missing the point.  The rhetoric around self-care seems to be that of "give of yourself indefinitely and selflessly...and when you feel tired or burned out or angry or sad or guilty, don't talk about it.  Instead, sleep.  Start a gratitude practice.  Get a massage or something.  This should make you feel good, and then, whether you're ready or not, you should jump back in. 

Don't get me wrong -- that's a good list.  But of course we should do all of these things.  Of course we should value and practice all of those things on that list.  Of course we all have times when some or all of those things are difficult.  (And, I'll add that many, if not all, of these things require a level of privilege).  However, we cannot simultaneously indicate that we value good self-care habits while we also indicate that you should work tirelessly and selflessly.  We cannot simultaneously indicate that we value good self-care when we don't talk about about taking care of ourselves or about the many ways in which self-care can be challenging.  

So here's what I think: we need to change the narrative.  I think that we -- those of us who care about and believe in and are struggling to work towards justice -- I think that we have the opportunity to do so.  I think it is necessary for us to do so.  In order for us to make the important work we are discussing and organizing and moving towards sustainable, I think we need to change the narrative.

The problem that I see (as I said here) is that Baltimore has been in crisis for a long time.  It is going to take a long time to change.  I don't want us to be so whole-heartedly in the struggle while the crisis is occurring that we have to back out when it's no longer the tragedy du jour.  There are deep-rooted, painful inequalities and injustices that need our attention.  This fight is going to be long, and it is going to be hard, and we are going to be tired.  I would much rather confront that head-on, at the beginning of the battle, so we know where we're headed and we set ourselves on the right trajectory.

It feels a bit pretentious for me to say, "so here's a list of what we should do"...because I don't know what we should do.  Regardless, I am going to present a list of my thoughts.  Take it or leave it.

(1)  We need to change the narrative stating that activism, working in helping professions, etc is "selfless."  When we work from this narrative, we create a false dichotomy between the work we do and caring for ourselves.  This, I believe, is harmful.  Most importantly, this stance is harmful because it sets us up to feel shame, and guilt, and perhaps a sense of failure when we need to take a breath, or step back from our work.  We can build ourselves or others up to a level of "selflessness" in that the more a person seems dedicated to her work (i.e. the more/harder she works), the "better" we believe her to be.  Selflessness is not and cannot be the goal.  Balance, and health, and sustainability, and belief in ones cause or work...those are goals we can support one another in.  This looks different for every person -- and that difference also needs to be respected.

Further, the idea that this work is "selfless" is in and of itself is a fallacy.  I work with children with developmental disabilities because it fills up my heart.  I do it because I believe they are people with inherent worth and dignity, and because it hurts my heart to know that there are people, and lawmakers, and isms in place that fight against that.  I feel like a better, more whole person when I can end my day knowing that I taught a 10-year-old to use a picture to request her favorite movie, or that I have reduced a 14-year-olds head-banging behavior by 50%. 

I believe in fighting for reproductive justice and fighting rape culture, because I need to believe change is happening in these areas.  I need to fight that battle, because I and many other women hurt.

I believe that black lives matter, and the knowledge that people are dying, and mothers are scared for their children's lives, and people are grieving in ways that I and my family will never need to grieve or fear makes me angry.  It sits in my heart and my stomach like rocks I can't remove.  I was given an unearned privilege, and I believe with all of my being that it is my responsibility to use that power to confront the systems keeping the inequalities in place. 

There is nothing selfless about this: I fight these battles, because I need to fight these battles.  Our work is not selfless.  It is a way of deeply caring for ourselves.  It is one of many ways of caring for ourselves.  When we frame our work as being one way of engaging in self-care, we may be able to take care of ourselves in all the ways we need with more ease. 

(2) Many of us balk at this idea of self-care, in large part because it focuses only on the self.  We (especially those of us who are "helpers") focus so much on others that it can be a challenge for us to do things for ourselves, much less say phrases like "I need to take care of myself."

But here's the truth: self-care is not just about the self.  Self-care is about caring for our minds and our bodies, but it is also about caring for our families.  It is also about caring for our communities.  It is also about giving others the gift of allowing them to care for us.  It is also about allowing ourselves to be in community with others who care like we do, and to find energy, and joy, and solidarity, and tears with them.  To be with one another in that manner is a gift.    

I wrote some of my half-baked ideas about this here, and I believe them to be true: the hurt, the wounding, the grief, and injustice we are fighting happened in society.  The burnout, or shame, or guilt, or exhaustion we feel -- that does not happen in a vacuum.  So why is it that we think that the antidote to this is to focus on the self, to spend time alone, etc?  Perhaps that is a piece of the antidote (alone time certainly is for me), but I also know that the true healing can only occur in community.  Self-care is community-care.  It really is true that we belong to one another.

(3) I don't think that we-as-a-society truly value the necessary and important ways we need to care for ourselves -- particularly we as helper-types, or we as activists, or we as those who believe in bending that arc towards justice.  We need to see self-care as a value, and we need to act in ways that support that -- both in our public works for justice, and in our smaller communities, and in our private lives. 

(4) Self-care should be a community goal, and a community concern.  We belong to one another, and that includes caring for one another.  Just as we cannot work towards justice alone, we cannot care for ourselves alone.  It was never meant to be that way.

(5) As people engaged in activism, in helping professions, etc, we often have a platform from which we can model self-care for others.  What would it mean if we actively chose not to model the "selfless" role, and instead to model a self-care that looks like wellness, and sustainability, and honoring ourselves, our bodies and our communities?  What if we modeled what it looks like to trust our communities enough to trust them with our vulnerability as well as our strength?  What if we acted from a place of knowing that we are enough?  What if we acted from a place of truly believing that what we have to offer from our deepest heart -- that piece of action that is filling us up and sustaining us -- what if we acted knowing that it is enough?

(6) I can't seem to find a good place to put this, so I'm going to put it here.  I think one of the most overlooked aspects of self-care is the need to acknowledge that your feelings -- whatever they are -- are valid.  Perhaps you feel guilty, or angry, or sad.  Maybe you feel overwhelmed, or shut down, or scared.  Maybe you are grieving, or all you can say is that "it hurts."  I think it is easy to dismiss these feelings under the realization that you are engaging in this work because others are suffering more than you.  Because there are injustices occurring to people who aren't you, and you believe in fighting to change that. 

But your feelings, and your reactions -- they are valid, too.  When your community is hurting, as ours is, your feelings matter.  Even if you live in the suburbs.  Even if you're white.  Even if you're not sure how you feel, or you think you shouldn't feel that way. 

I think it's also important to note that, when frightening things are occurring in our community, it can trigger old (seemingly unrelated) feelings.  This, too, is valid, okay?  And it's important to let those feelings be there -- to name them for what they are.  This is powerful self-care.

This is long and rambling and wordy, but if you remember nothing else, remember this list:

(1) What you do matters.  Doing something -- it always matters.

(2) We belong to one another. 

(3) You are enough.  The actions you can take in a way that supports and uplifts your spirit are enough. 

(4) We -- your community -- we are here to grieve, and celebrate, and fight, and be with you.  Let us care for one another as we struggle towards that which is right together.   

Love, and peace, and blessings, and all good stuff to you, my friends.

Friday, May 1, 2015

On Baltimore: Hearing the stories

I feel like I need to start this with the same disclaimer I wrote last time: I don't have anything new or important to add to everything everyone is saying all the time right now.  All I have is my hurting heart and a touch of outrage today, with a lot of sadness, and overwhelm, and confusion, and exhaustion thrown in for good measure.  All I have are these words, and emotions, and anger I'm not entirely sure how to contain. 

When I was in college, I worked at a Baltimore City elementary school at an after-school program, and it was there that I first learned how my heart and my perceptions of the world could be shattered.  The school consisted of 97% black students.  My most salient memories now, given that this was 10 years ago, surround the fact that the school had lead in the pipes so you couldn't use the water fountains, the paint was chipping off of the walls, and we couldn't go outside on the playground because there were reports of men in vans taking pictures of children and hanging around the school.  If you come to my house, I still have a picture of the first little guy I tutored on my wall.  K was in kindergarten at the time, and he was the first child I ever met who talked about saving his snack from school, because he knew he wasn't going to get dinner.   Yorkwood Elementary was the first place I met 1st graders who talked to me about the rats in their apartments, and about domestic violence, and about visiting their parent in prison.  I was at the school when a 5th grade boy I knew left to go home, and was struck and killed by a city bus.  I was there when his friends came running back to school, having witnessed the accident.  I was there when his parents came to pick up his younger sister.  Working at this school broke my heart as tragedy after tragedy seemed to unfold.  I keep the picture of K on my wall, because his precious face reminds me not to numb myself to these stories.  By now, I have heard the stories of many hungry children.  By now, I have heard far too many stories of domestic violence, and unsafe homes, and inequalities that make my entire body seethe.  But I keep that picture of K, because I want to remember the shock and outrage and sadness 18-year-old me felt as I watched 6-year-old K shoving his milk and his Teddy Grahams into his overstuffed backpack, telling me he would eat it for dinner.

Three years ago, I moved back to Baltimore, and I started working in the city, full time, with low-income families with children with developmental disabilities.  Approximately 70% of my families were black, and nearly all of them lived somewhere in Baltimore City.  It was there that I heard stories of families coming home to find they had been evicted.  One grandmother and her grandson with severe disabilities came home to find that all of their belongings had been put out on the street and destroyed, and they had nowhere to go.  I had several families who were homeless, who were repeatedly kicked out of friends' homes and homeless shelters due to their children's disruptive behaviors.  Many were hungry, and parents asked me for snacks for themselves when their children earned chips or juice for cleaning up, or doing their homework, or talking nicely during therapy.  I worked with mothers living in drug rehab facilities, and I scheduled appointments around parent's methadone appointments.  I worked with a 2-year-old who was born addicted to drugs, and continued to have severe, constant, self-injurious behaviors.  I wrote letters to landlords who refused to fix broken windows, informing them of the safety hazard for the impulsive, hyperactive, nonverbal children who lived there.  I talked about lead poisoning.  I worked with failing schools that were refusing to give children with special needs what they were required to give them by law.  I asked parents to buy small reinforcers for positive behaviors...matchbox cars from the dollar store for him keeping his hands to himself, a bag of M&Ms to use for toilet training...and when they couldn't afford them, I bought them for them in the hopes that something -- anything -- would work.  

I could tell you story, after story, after heart-breaking story.  I could tell you stories of black mothers terrified that their nonverbal black sons with autism will be shot -- and that's not just in the city.  I could tell you of the numerous black mothers who have cried in my office the past several months as they fear for their children's safety -- both the middle-class and the low-income mothers.  I could tell you about conversations that broke my heart as children with developmental disabilities attempt to struggle with the scary events of our community.  I could tell you a story from today about a black child who is not getting what he needs from his school's special education team, and I am certain that this has everything to do with his race and their perceptions of his caregiver.  I could tell you of one mother's tears as she said, "it hurts me to know that no matter where I go, no matter where my son goes, no matter who sees us, from which angle, we can't hide the fact that we are black...and that fact alone makes us unsafe and open to judgments and criticism and hatred.  We can never, ever escape that."

This is the Baltimore that has been in my heart since I started working at that elementary school 10 years ago.  These stories are, in large part, my experience of Baltimore.  Baltimore has been a place that has entered, and shattered, and re-shattered my heart.  And I let it.  Because it's necessary.  Because it's important.  Because I need K's precious face on my wall to remind me that this injustice is here, and it is real, and it is in my backyard.  Because I cannot choose to be willfully ignorant of the fact that children are hungry, and children are living in homeless shelters, and children are being improperly educated in shitty schools without the accommodations they need, and children are being exposed to violence, and children are being poisoned with lead in their homes, and children are being abused and neglected, because their caregivers are part of a broken system with no way out, trying to do the best they can, without even a framework to work from.  Baltimore is suffering, and it is resilient, and I feel you can watch its suffering parts being ignored. There is no way up. No way out. It is hundreds of years of oppression, keeping the disparities in place. It has been carefully and perhaps somewhat consciously constructed. 

For me, Baltimore has names, and faces, and stories, and I have been outraged about Baltimore for years.  I no longer work in the city full-time, but the stories and the faces...they stay with you. 

But I'm naive, right?  I assume that everyone knows these faces, and everyone knows these stories.  I assume that everyone cares about these faces and these stories, and I assume that everyone sees the systematic, institutionalized racism and economic disparity that lives in Baltimore.  And I am wrong.  And that makes me angry.  It makes me seethe, actually, and cry hot tears, and lie awake at night muttering and cursing under my breath.

And honestly?  I don't even know a tiny fraction of it.  I know stories -- individual stories.  I see themes, and I see pain, and I know some research, but mostly, I just know stories, and faces, and names.  I have the privilege of going home at night at leaving it at work.  But I know that the beings in my office...they go home to apartments with no furniture or beds, or they go back to the homeless shelter, or they go home to houses with cockroaches and no food. 

I'm angry that it takes violence to get people to pay attention.  I am angry that the lives of the people in Baltimore didn't matter until it escalated to violence that someone felt warranted media attention.  I am angry that people can be surprised that this is happening, and that they can pin the blame on something other than systemic racism and devaluing of specific groups and communities of people.  I am angry that people will swoop in now to help, and then when it is no longer the biggest trending thing, they will be able to swoop back out without a second thought.  I am angry because I don't see a way through the mess.  I don't see how the arc is bending towards justice.  I just don't.

Because, a month from now, or a year from now, or three years from now, that homeless mother with the 10-year-old, not yet potty-trained child will still be sitting in my therapy room with pleading eyes, and I will still have 50-minutes to give her something to take away.  She is not a television I can turn off, or a project I can end...because I know that if it is not my therapy room, they, or someone very like them, will be in someone else's.  Once you have touched the people and faces behind the statistics, you can't turn away.  The stories become part of your bloodstream, and you cannot let them go.

I'm angry because the way my mind works is in stories.  My mind works in people.  My mind works on a person-by-person basis, and that is not what's needed.  What's needed is organizational change.  What's needed is systemic change.  What's needed is community change, and large-scale work, and activism.

But my brain does not work that way.  I understand people, and stories, and individuals, but get overwhelmed when I think about community-wide organizing, large-scale efforts, and change.  It's as if Baltimore is flooding...and all I can do is hand out life-vests, one at a time, and maybe an occasional canoe.  What we need is somebody to build a dam, if only just so that we can see what's here and begin to take stock of the damages. 

I don't know how to end this, because there is no conclusion.  I'm angry.  I'm sad.  I am overwhelmed, and I don't know where we go from here.  I am wanting my brain to work with me better to adventure towards solutions.  I feel powerless.  I feel I don't have the right to be this angry.  I am overwhelmed by the pain I am hearing, and I am struggling with how to best hear and sit with that pain from my position of unearned privilege.  I am struggling with how to sit with the reality that I get to come home to a safe house, and that I don't need to worry about getting killed, or shot, or pulled over, or rejected, or judged because of my skin color...while I also struggle to truly be with people who are sharing with me that the very opposite is their inescapable daily reality.  I feel a sense of guilt and shame as I realize that I need to let my brain take a rest from this struggle it is in to figure it all out.  I feel so very conflicted.

So perhaps I'll end (finally!) with this.  I introduced this to some parents yesterday, and I think it is helpful.  I am trying to keep it also in my mind.

Kristin Neff is a researcher on mindfulness and self-compassion.  She has conducted numerous studies and written a great deal on the topic ( has some wonderful resources).  She suggests an exercise for bringing compassion to yourself during difficult or stressful times, and she describes three simple steps for doing so:

(1) Identify the moment as a moment of suffering.  (State something like: "This moment is a moment of suffering" or "This hurts" or "ouch"). 

(2) Acknowledge that suffering is a part of life, and recognize our common humanity.  (Perhaps saying something like "Other people also feel this way" or "I know many people struggle with these feelings").

(3) Put your hand over your heart, and bring kindness to yourself by saying, "may I bring myself the compassion that I need" or "may I be strong" or "may I learn to accept myself as I am."

Here is mine:

This moment is a moment of suffering.
There are many people who are also suffering with feelings of powerlessness in this moment.
May I be strong, and learn to use that strength for the greatest good.

Will you share your prayer with me?  Or at least write one for yourself?  It may not be a dam...but perhaps it will be a life vest and that, at least, is a place to start.