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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Malicious Joy

I call them the shinny, happy, magazine people. They look like glossy ads. Shinny skin, blemish free, blissful gaze, plump lips, bright white teeth, dewy eyes, wind swept hair, flawless cuticles and no cellulite in sight. I imagine they smell like an expensive hotel lobby, subtle, decadent, and deliberately, manipulatively delicious. They radiate confidence. And competence. They look like they get shit done. Shit, they look like they have other people get their shit done for them.

She was one of them. A shiny, happy, magazine person. I’d brush past her on the way in our out of yoga class, clomping along, feeling like an un-brushed Clydesdale to her long leg gazelle prance. She always had positive things to say and made sure to turn any frown upside down with ‘budda-rific” (as she called them) tidbits.

You make your own destiny
You can meet everything with gratitude
Negative energy ages you
There is abundance of everything

I often felt petty or greedy around her, sometimes even hostile, like when I heard her say, “You just need to put out more positive energy and you’ll feel better.” When someone had the flu. Or, “That’s karma for you.” When someone’s bike was stolen. All in all, very un-Buddha-like of me.

Which, to be frank I was ok with. I didn’t want to be like her or the other perma-smile, bright eyed rosy cheeked white men and women whispering to each other about lulu lemon tank top sales and home made vegetarian stew recipes. I did, however, want some of that shinny happy stuff. I had acne, frown lines, enormous pores, and my hair never looked wind swept in that kind of way. But really, under all the shiny shit, what I really longed for was the confidence that sparkled like the clunky silver jewelry they wore. My insecurity and awkwardness seemed to bloom around these shinny, happy, magazine people. My feelings of inelegance didn’t change despite knowing that she was, in fact, a shinny, happy, hot, Buddha mess.

But there was something appealing; an American “by the boot-straps” allure in the idea that messes and mishaps can make you stronger and wiser. Me, after most of my mistakes, I feel embarrassed at best and often totally incompetent. I don’t tend to feel wiser or stronger, but drained and a little sheepish. The messes that she grappled with, she claimed, gave her opportunities for prayer and practicing Buddha love. I wondered how you Buddha love your way into paying a past due electric bill or deal with a student loan creditor who’s calling you 20 times a day. She would laugh, a brilliant cascade of shinny ha ha’s and give me a just-right crinkly smile that somehow erased rather than accentuated the lines around her eyes. “Oh, Cristien, the universe will provide. You just have to be open.” Open to what, I thought, picturing Buddha on a cloud or tree limb somehow sticking out in the sky with a big black check book, laughing as he dashed off checks to Puget Sound Energy or Citi Bank student loans and tossing them so they drifted like little blue rectangular leaves wherever they were needed. On one hand, I agreed with her, that there is an abundance of everything. On the other hand, one percent of the population owns most of it, and the rest of us can’t afford any of it, so, well, that’s complicated.

She tried to simplify it for me. She explained the energetic principle of karma and how the vibrations we put out make up the world we live in. How, I wondered, did all these vibrations not knock us down? I’d picture a giant tuning fork or enormous bass amp. I mean, my body throbs for days after a Neurosis show. I know that vibrations are everywhere and that they are powerful stuff. Just the other day I hear about this guy, Oliver Beer. He taps into the resonant frequencies of a structure, and makes them “sing”. He records chanting or singing inside a structure like a tunnel or bridge and as the words bounce around the structure, he records them, then loops the recording, plays it back and then records that. He does this over and over until the natural frequencies of the structure resonate and the structure itself produces sound. Singing. It is haunting and deeply touching to listen to a tunnel or a parking garage sing. But vibrations, no matter how powerful or moving, do not have positive or negative qualities. No matter what words the singers sang, no matter what the words meant, no matter what the text, the words always bounced back indiscriminately. The mathematics of resonance and science of sound is completely indifferent to the meaning of the actual words being chanted or sung.

So, my friend, she was right of course, in some sense. Vibrations are powerful. Moving. Emotional. But her conviction that imagining the job she wanted or offering a mantra for a coveted pair of boots and somehow thinking that the vibes she put out there would manifest in these material things, is something I couldn’t wrap my head around. Science can’t wrap its head around that either. That kind of energy, if it existed, would crush us. Or at least knock us on our collective asses—and not in a metaphysical or metaphorical way. But in a physics, atom-smashing, ass knocking kind of way

But shinny is shinny and happiness does clamor for our attention. I watched her over the year, coming and going in the yoga studio we both went to, her long auburn hair longer and shinier each time I saw her. Every time I asked how she was doing, she would say the same thing “Buddha blessed and divine. How are you?” Sometimes I would tell her about something fucked up going on in my world in a voyeuristic delight of listening to her insistence on making whatever it was, a joyful, positive experience. It was like watching the car accident she told me she had been in. I couldn’t turn away or stop listening as she explained how her insurance was refusing to pay her medical bills and she felt like the universe was really trying to tell her something.

“That insurance companies are greedy and fucked?” I’d blurt out.

She would smile that smile, crinkle her nose at me and say, “Oh Cristien you are so funny!”

Or, when her life coach doubled her fees and informed her that her hesitancy to continue working with her was an emotional block around success and loving herself. She leaned in conspiratorially and whispered, “She is really teaching me about love, you know. And how to not try to control things.”

She would smile a shinny, happy smile at me and prance away ever more light and ethereal. I became a little obsessed in watching her transformation. Week to week, I’d check in with her. I watched, as her insistence on seeing the joy and gratitude in everything seemed to nibble away at her physical frame. She became more airy which I hadn’t thought possible, her feet hardly seeming to land on the ground.

She told me about her hours being cut at work and how that was a blessing because it forced her to simplify and focus more on her spiritual life. She did not, I noted, stop seeing her spiritual coach whom I happened to know also doubled her fee, but none of my Buddha business, right? She kept her life coach. “An absolute necessity” she would insist, espousing the need to let go of trying to control things. “The only thing you can control is your reaction to things and it’s just spiritually laziness to chose to be miserable and I choose to not be lazy and not be miserable.” She’d bluster with small stamp of a bare foot.

“What about people who have been evicted, or lost their home, or got fired or downsized, or have a terminal disease caused by waste from the chemical plant up stream from where they live, or are homeless because of domestic violence, don’t they have the right, or even the moral and spiritual obligation to be a little bit pissed off and miserable?” I asked her.

She smiled, all white teeth and pink lip stain, patted my hand and said, “They should be grateful. They have amazing opportunities. Happy people put out happy energy. Positive people attractive positive things. Negativity attracts negativity. It’s science.”

She said this with such confidence. A confidence buoyed by years of social messaging and her own personal evidence-based experiments. Everything provided evidence of this energetic exchange between her and an ever-generous universe. When she got the best parking spot, she had visualized it. If the barista remembered her drink, it was because she put out positive energy, not because of good customer service. Her new yoga pants, on sale exactly the same day she got her refund check-a minor miracle and scientific proof of the power of positive thinking.

This insistence on happiness, on gratitude and joy, a forced serenity fascinated and disturbed me, appealed to me and repelled me. She offered assurances that it was natural, healthy to practice positively. That it was unnatural to live in negativity. But I noticed the more she insisted on being happy, on seeing the joy in everything, the shinier and smilier she looked that the thinner and more ethereal she became. Joy seemed to eat her up, like a bulimic cell burrowed deep inside her endlessly devouring and demanding more joy! More joy! More joy!

I don’t mean to disparage joy or gratitude. Our world would be much better if there were less greed, less selfishness, less of the never-ending sense of never-enough-ness that divides our capacity for solidarity and cultivates a collective and cultural anxiety. An anxiety that fuels both the reality of an ever expanding class divide and reality shows like Keeping Up With The Kardashians—and both of these realities fuel massive industries built on top of and out of our anxieties and desire to avoid, well, reality itself. I want more joy and gratitude in my own life. I want reality to include the lovely and the loving, without out bright washing the painful shit. I feel better, am a better friend, a better ally when I am able to hold the complex reality that really good and positive, fabulous things occur alongside really painful, negative shit. But painful, is painful and it makes sense to some degree that we try to avoid it. And, truth be told, sometimes it’s helpful to avoid feeling bad. But there is a collective cognitive moral dissonance that begins to warp our capacity to be fully human when we ignore “the bad” to focus only on “the good”.

One day, she told me she was going to transcended negativity by refusing to engage in anything negative. This included, I found out, me. I discovered this because she simply stopped talking to me before or after class. She would smile and bow at me in a way that made me annoyed and slightly uncomfortable, but she wouldn’t talk to me. She wore her joyful bliss like a costume she refused to take off. A pretty party princess dancing alone long after all the partygoers have gone home. The joy she radiated was eating her, that was painfully clear. Her joy was insatiable, she an anorexic vessel with the privilege to refuse to engage in the real world. Her privilege, however, was unable to prevent joy from draining her, even as she insisted that every obstacle or unfortunate event was an opportunity or Buddha-moment.

I began to see cracks in the shinny, freshly scrubbed and veggie juiced veneer. One day she forgot to smile when sharing how blessed she was, her green eyes flat and dull. Another day as she arched her long limbs into bow pose, clunky jewelry jangling, her brows furrowed and her lips pursed in a very not-so-serene sneer. And another time she began to complain about a 30% rent increase, caught herself, shook her head, whipping her long auburn hair in front of her face and sheepishly slid away. Despite these small cracks, she continued to be enveloped in a vaporous cloud of fierce serenity and would have resembled a “non-violent or pacifist zombie” if you didn’t get a whiff of very-human and not so zombie like Stargazer Lilly shampoo every time she walked by.

But even her zombie-ness began to seem too real, too practical and probably full of too much negativity for her and it began to melt away, as her body, desperate to contain all the joyful gratitude her practice demanded, deteriorated around the edges. She became ratty at the seams, less dense and when people tried to engage her in conversations that were not “positive”, she not only refused to engage, she would smile a slowly vanishing smile, fading, as she did, quietly, mutely dissolving into the void of eternal gratitude while a malicious joy consumed her endlessly from the inside out.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Unhinged: Unpredictable Responses to a Predictable World

The single malt scotch burned its way down his throat, scratching at his insides with sharp precision like the red polished nails of a high-end escort.

His sense of entitlement, nestled in the depths of his insides, sat next to his guilt about the damage he was responsible for, the arrogance of his youth and pomposity of a wealthy middle age, each of them drowning in a sea of Chateau Montifaud Cognac, regret and just a shy sliver of hope.

“You’ve gone mad!” They told him. “It just isn’t done.” They hissed at him. And it isn’t. So maybe he was mad. But he also felt better than he had in years. More sure. Calmer. His acid reflux, a sure symbol of corporate manhood, was receding like a warm nighttime tide under a sweet tropical moon.

He had redistributed 99% of his assets: savings, property, stocks, bonds, all of it. He’d liquidated most of his properties and miscellaneous cars, boats and big-ticket items he’d acquired like some people accrue extra socks or hats. He’d given that 99% to 99 different communities starting in his state and in the poorest neighborhoods—they got the biggest percentage. No strings. No government hand out hooks. Just delivered checks to three community centers, 12 different churches, temples and mosques, and dozens of different neighborhood development projects and then in a final fait accompli he simply handed out bundles of cash to people at the local corner stores and coffee shops like some drunk Santa Claus. And it did feel a little bit like Christmas. Not the Christmas’ of his adulthood, crammed with stressful shopping trips in order to find just the right gift for this or that associate, investor, partner, politician, not to mention wife, lover, children, parents and siblings. And good god if being rich wasn’t just a pain in the ass sometimes—they all expected perfection from him. After all, he could afford it. It took a toll, all that striving towards and expectation of perfection.

He sighed slowly and took another meaty mouthful of amber liquid puffing out his extract-of-Scandinavian-seaweed moisturized cheeks, savoring the smoky film that lingered on the back of his throat.

It was a pain in the ass, both the spending and hoarding of riches, the constant search for expansion balanced by a need to keep everything tightly controlled. It was a pain in the ass, and the back—more specifically and more literally a pain in his hemorrhoids and his slipped disks and pinched sciatic nerve. He shifted in his chair, the buttery leather softly caressing the backs of his thighs.

His body told the story of ladder climbing and bootstrapping. He had soft un-calloused fingers and manicured nails, shinny with clear polish designed “to look manly for the dignified executive,” claimed the beautician. His belly rounded out the front of his $500.00 Paul Fredrick button up shirt just enough to let the world know he could afford both a personal trainer and a private chef. His posture was erect but his shoulders rounded forward with the rolling edge of someone always having to bully their way through rather than sit back and enjoy. Even when he sat back to enjoy, which he tried more and more of as he matured and grayed around the edges, there was a restless look about him—all energy still in forward motion.

He sighed again, shoulders drooping in a familiar forward gesture. The second city had been fun. He was in and out in a single day having arrived unannounced and ahead of the press buzz from his previous stint in his hometown. He was chauffeured efficiently by a long time and well trusted driver from one end of town to the other with checks and thick envelopes of cash. Again, he’d started with the poorest part of town. His black town car, a study in contrast, garnered long sideways glances and interrupted neighborly conversations as people paused to watch him drive by, held their breath when he stopped, and held themselves erect when he got out. Some automatically started giving him directions back to the highway assuming he was lost and his driver incompetent. He wasn’t lost. “I’m not lost.” he’d say, “Well not in that sort of sense,” he’s sometimes added quietly with a soft smile. The people would smile back politely. Waiting. He was used to being indulged. When he handed them the envelopes or asked their names to write a personal check, they would often refuse to accept, holding arms up in front of their chest in both a protective and defensive posture. Or, they might not raise their arms at all, but tilt their head at a sharp investigative angle watching him as they took an instinctual step back. In the first, second and even the third city he had been confused. After countless exchanges such as this he finally understood. There was no reason to trust him and every reason to believe he would do them harm, or at the very least make them a pawn in a dirty rotten joke at their expense. He got it. He got it because he came from a world where these sorts of people were expendable, faceless, nameless and even human less. They were numbers on a graph, statistics in a power point presentation. Data to be crunched then mulled over during a three-course lunch or stint at the driving range. And they knew it. Knew he knew it. Their eyes called him out and reflected himself back to himself.
He pulled the trigger back. Boom! Then silence, save for the soft splatter of gristle, bone shards and blood sliding down the mahogany panels of his office walls and the slight tremor of his left hand which lay on top the handwritten note drafted carefully on the monogrammed stationary he preferred to use. “I don’t like what I saw when I looked at myself through other people’s eyes,” it began, “You will be tempted to think I am crazy or unbalanced, while I, of course, prefer to think I am not. I don’t suppose you can begin to look clearly at the world that we have made, that I have helped to build without teetering on the edge of sanity. Had I stayed, I would have gone mad.” The note continued with personal assurances of love and pleas for family members to not place blame on themselves. Of course, they participated in making the world he was trying desperately to disentangle himself from and he knew they were to blame in some regard. But this decision, to end it this way, was all his.

He made sure his family was taken care of to some degree in the way they had come accustomed to, but not completely. After that, he gave the rest of what he had to the homeless man he passed every day on the street walking into his building but never really saw until he put this plan into motion. The homeless man threw a party at the shelter handing out fistfuls of cash to everyone he ran into. No one called him crazy or told him “That’s just not done”. They all took the money and threw parties of their own.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Lost Woman. Reaward?

Life changes in an instant. One moment you are sitting in the sun, enjoying a warm July afternoon and then next, you are running up and down the streets by your house frantically searching for your most loyal friend. Last summer my dog, Sukhi, got out of a small hole in our fence left by the construction crew working on the new fourplex condos being built next door. One minute he was in the yard sitting slyly by my feet and begging for a bite of my cheese sandwich, then the next, gone. As I frantically searched the yard after turning over every blanket and pillow in the house (the last time I thought he was missing I found him asleep inside a pillow case) I found the hole he escaped from.

I canvassed the neighborhood that night and put up flyers first thing the next morning. Because it was Friday on the Fourth of July weekend, I had to wait until Tuesday to check the animal shelter to see if he had been dropped off. I was devastated. I cried as I put up flyers and posted a notice on Craigslist. Cried as I sat on my front porch, gate open willing him to trot up the stairs. Cried some more as my husband and I recanvassed the neighborhood Saturday, Sunday, Monday. I was inconsolable. Saturday night when the fireworks started, I left our front door open hoping he would come rushing up the front steps and leap into my arms. Sukhi and I had been through a lot together. I missed my four-legged sidekick. 

Tuesday we went to the animal shelter. He wasn’t there. He’d been gone five days and I was heartbroken but trying to remain hopeful. As I walked out of the shelter, numb and tired into the bright July sunshine I didn’t notice the canvas tent set up in two of the parking spaces until a freshly-shaved, bright-eyed man called out, “Did you lose your dog?” I nodded.

He rose and walked over to me. “What kind of dog?” 

“Little Chihuahua” I replied realizing the unnecessary repetition.

“Friendly?” he asked.


“OK. We can help.” He replied with such conviction, such assurance that I found myself wanting to believe everything he said.

I was emotionally exhausted, slumped into a tired, sad ball. In my heartbroken state, it is hard to recall exact details and I mostly have impressions of people and events. I remember he had ramrod posture, exuded confidence and his freshly scrubbed face rosy from the sun and soft blue eyes conveyed sympathy that made it easy for me to want to trust him. I nodded and followed him to the makeshift tent set up in the parking lot. The tent had a banner running across a fold up table proclaiming to help people find lost pets. The man, clearly part of the group running the activities inside the tent, indicated that I should stand by the table.

Crates of papers were stacked neatly on one end, an old computer rested on a sagging plastic folding table, stacks of bright pastel poster board were piled against an ice chest on which an older white woman was sitting. I stepped into the buzz of six or so volunteers identified by their orange vests and walkie-talkies. A young blonde woman with a toothy smile and long fingers held a clipboard and began asking me questions. It helped to have someone take charge. Take care of things. Name? Age? Size? Chipped? Collar? Tag? I answered. Someone handed me a sweaty bottle of water while an older woman with a short sensible salt-and-pepper bob and brown loafers asked if we had a photo.

“Not with me,” I replied.

Another woman marched over looking very much in charge and she explained things to me with military precision and an authority as crisp as the crease in her button-up shirt. She said something like, “Statistically, most small friendly dogs are picked up one to three blocks from their homes and if not found at the shelter, are found by posting flyers around the neighborhood so that whoever found the dog knows he has an owner.” She paused to let that sink in, smiled neatly and continued, “We have found in our research that putting notices on cars is a very effective tactic—you get your message out as you drive around your neighborhood, doing your shopping, going to work, running errands. You should also include that the dog is micro-chipped so they know that the dog is registered and offer a reward. You don’t have to state what the reward is, just that there is one because statistically that increases the chance you will get your dog back.”

I nodded. The man who had called out to me, Blue Eyes, I silently dubbed him, asked if I wanted him to put a notice directly on my car. He informed me that research shows it helps to use bright colors and explained which words convey the most information. He asked if I was okay with him using the bright pink markers, assuring me it washed right off with soap and warm water. I nodded again, feeling overwhelmed but also lighter and hopeful. These people were attentive and helpful and seemed to know just what to do and what to say. I, on other the other hand, felt like I had been running around handing out flyers willy-nilly, dashing off in one direction on a whim and then running home to sit and cry while I hopped Sukhi would simply bound in the yard.

It felt good to ride the wave these people created with their efficiency, productivity, and energy. I was drained from walking for hours four days in a row while crying myself into a fitful sleep at night. Blue Eyes found my car and began entering information from the clipboard on my back windshield. Another person asked again for a photo. I looked pleadingly at my husband and he silently nodded and walked to the car. He drove home and returned with a photo.

Another young blond woman with wide eyes and a neat ponytail told me she would print out flyers for me to post. I thought this was nice as we had no money and I had to pull out our penny jar when I went to the copy shop to make flyers. Their flyers were on neon posterboard with large commanding lettering and centered color copy photos. Our flyers were copied sheets of 8 1/2 by 11 white paper with blurry photos and my chicken-scratch handwriting.

I sat on the curb and drank my water thinking it was laudable of the volunteers to take time out on beautiful holiday weekend to make posters for my missing dog. An older gentleman hobbled over on bowlegs and held out a bag of SunChips to me with a smile. I gratefully took a handful of chips realizing I hadn’t eaten since yesterday afternoon. As I sipped my water and munched on my snack, I watched the volunteers—they hummed about, printing flyers, writing posters, scribbling on the backs of car windows and approached people when they came out of the animal shelter with an understanding look and low voice, asking if they lost a dog or cat.

They would ask the dog or cat owner if they wanted any help and if so a volunteer would guide them to the folding table and in a soothing voice, begin to gather the necessary information— what kind of dog, how big, friendly or not and then share their strategy depending on what the research said.


“What?” I looked up to see four volunteers. Two men, one long and lanky the other short and husky and two woman, both with short blondish hair, all in orange vests, were standing over me.

“We have a team of people who will take the posters and do intersections for an hour,” the husky man said.

“Do intersections?” I asked.

“Yep.” He explained that doing intersections is one of the most effective ways to get an animal back if you believe that someone found it and is keeping it—for whatever reason. He told me that a lot of times the person who found the dog may think the dog doesn’t have a home or that they have bonded and do not want to give them back. But, when they see the poster, they know the dog has a home and is loved.

“If you have people on all four corners of the biggest intersection near where the dog was lost, you maximize coverage—people see it on their way home from work, running errands,” he said with authority.

Here were four volunteers willing to hold up posters with pictures of my dog for a couple of hours to help me get him back? I felt rolling waves of emotions: hope, joy, gratitude. I wanted my dog back. I was so grateful for how much help and support I received on this sweltering Tuesday in July. I felt lucky to have stumbled on this dedicated group of volunteers who, rather than go camping or relax over a holiday weekend were offering to help strangers find lost pets. But I also felt a pang of guilt and hesitation, even some confusion. Doing anti-racist and allyship work has made me aware of all the ways disparity impacts individuals and communities differently. I know, for example, how little support many poor families and families of color receive when their child goes missing. The image of four white semi-paramilitary looking volunteers in orange safety vests, walkie-talkies dangling from pockets, holding pink signs with a picture of my missing Chihuahua…well, it felt a little uncomfortable. Awkward. Privileged. White.

And, it wasn’t just the bright orange safety vest they handed me. Blue Eyes informed me apologetically that there was only one extra vest, so my husband I would have to choose who would wear it. My husband and I looked at each other silently. Safety vest? Knowing how distraught I was, he said nothing as he took the vest, shrugged it over his black Sunn shirt, hugged me, and walked away with his oversized sign and stack of pink flyers. I watched as he stopped to talk to an elderly couple exiting Walgreen’s with three bulging plastic bags and an enormous twenty-four pack of toilet paper. I watched him approach a group of Pakistani men sipping espresso and smoking outside of Starbucks, and then walk over to hand a flyer to two teenage girls waiting in front of the nail salon.

Many of the families living in this multi-ethnic working class neighborhood are struggling to make ends meet and keep the ends they have. I walked past a yellowed Xeroxed flyer of a little girl who had been missing for a few months. I wanted her picture to be plastered on enormous pink posterboard. I wanted an army of volunteers to do intersections for her. I looked at my group of volunteers handing out crisp professional looking flyers and working diligently to find my “Small, friendly, tan with white paws, male Chihuahua.” I felt a pang of sadness at the inequity of the world. I don’t know what supports the family of the little girl had, but I know from doing organizing work that many poor, working class families and families of color have not experienced an outpouring of support when their child went missing or was abducted. Holding this awareness, made me feel a little sheepish about all the help I was receiving.

Not that I didn’t want to find my dog. I was devastated by his disappearance and desperate to get him back. I have no doubt that many of the working class families in this neighborhood would feel the same desperation if they lost a pet. But I was also keenly aware that having a group of volunteers armed with walkie-talkies, oversized pink poster board and current research statistics, ready to canvas for me was a privilege.

While it was important to me to find my missing dog, it was also impossible to ignore the reality that holding a bright orange sign for a missing Chihuahua in the middle of a community that regularly deals with police brutality, fatal shootings, hate crimes, and discrimination on multiple fronts, can seem, well, to be honest, a little trite. I do not mean in any way to trivialize the painful reality of losing a pet. For many people, myself included, pets are family. However, I am painfully aware that I live in a country where spending on basic and preventative healthcare for many people is far outdone by the billions spent on the care, feeding, health and well being of household pets.

I was touched by the number of people who took the time to read a missing dog sign, then offer kind words, a pat on the back, or a compassionate look even as they carried six grocery bags on their way home, or shuffled by in mud crusted workboots, a neatly folded bus transfer in their hands. I imagined some long sideways glances and shaking of heads. In some ways, it does seem crazy to have nonprofit organizations dedicated to using scientific research to figure out the best way to find lost pets when people who are sick can’t afford medical care, homeless people die from exposure to the elements and communities of color continue to face racial disparity in myriad ways. I am not advocating that we dissolve all the nonprofits working to help find lost animals or any other pet rescue center. I love animals and think they make our world a much, much better and more vibrant place. Animals can teach us about love and healing in deep and powerful ways. They are companions and friends and vital parts of our communities. But there is something very disturbing about living in a society that will rally to make dog fighting illegal and more recently with the Michael Vick case, make sentences for dog fighting harsher, while “bum fights” videos received some news coverage but little legislative energy and are still being sold in the U.S. despite being banned in many other countries.

Years ago I developed and taught self-defense and boundary setting classes. During this time I realized how deeply entrenched victim blaming is in the American social fabric. Class after class participants would respond to stories of surviving incidents of violence with variations of blame-the-victim. The cultural intersections of pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps and victim blaming can create social conditions that sometimes make it easier to feel compassion for an abused or abandoned cat than a homeless person. The cat is blameless, but the homeless person, or the victim of a mugging or even domestic violence, must have done something to get themselves into that predicament and so they are responsible for getting themselves out of their predicament. This makes sense to some degree, human beings can agitate and advocate for themselves in ways that animals can’t. Sukhi couldn’t tell whoever found him to take him back home. Abused cats cannot call a hotline or decide to go to a shelter. But human beings are surviving and navigating predicaments within complex social conditions. I know from my work at a domestic violence shelter that for a lot of survivors calling a hotline has not helped them leave an abusive relationship and that a homeless shelter has not always been a stepping stone to housing and employment security. Life is complicated. In that complicated messiness, I think it can sometimes be easier to open our hearts to animals than to people. Animals are often less complicated and blameless—there is never a question as to whether it is a dog’s fault when it gets abused or is found homeless. 

That hot July day reminded me that my privilege buffers me from having to feel the pain of not being cared for. My health and well being, the care of my family has never taken a back seat to an animal. This is important. Having privilege means being able to avoid or not have to think about certain things. I have never felt less important in the eyes of my fellow citizens than a dog or cat. For many communities struggling to be treated with basic human dignity, there is no such privilege. As a white person in the Untied States, I do not have to reflect on the deeper meaning that animals will often be better taken care of than many of the human members of my community. That is the nature of privilege. But once you are aware, it is your responsibility to do something. But what do you do? We most certainly do not stop taking care of animals, dismantle dog parks or cut funding to shelters and rescue centers. We widen our circle of compassion.

I wonder this, as I hold my missing dog poster. Within ten minutes a woman stops at a red light and yells at me across the intersection “I have your dog!” She pulls over and tells me she will go get him. I am ecstatic. We have a happy family reunion replete with doggie squeals, face licking and ear-to-ear grins. I walk home with him, feeling happy and lucky. Their research was right, he was found less than three blocks away by someone who bonded with him and planned on taking him to the shelter but was taking their time because they enjoyed having him around. Seeing the signs made her realize he was loved and cared for and not forgotten or abandoned. I am grateful to the volunteers and, of course, happy to have my dog back. The incident reminded me of how important animals and pets are in the world I live in. Animals fill our lives with love and for some people pets fill a void, reduce a sense of isolation or disconnection and can even give people a reason to live. That we love and trust our pets is not bad or something we should change. But I want us all to be able to love and connect with one another as much. I believe we can. I believe we have an awful lot of work to do to get there. I am committed to doing that work to the best of my ability in my lifetime with hope and faith that it will continue in future generations. I hope other allies will join me.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Skirting Sexism

It was one of those music shows where people shushed angrily if you dared to speak quietly to a friend standing next to you. During any of the bands or spoken word performances if you tried to talk at all someone would glare at you, snap a forefinger to their lips and give you an angry SHHHHHHHHHHH, which was inevitably louder than your whispered conversation. My band was playing a very short set in a very long lineup of what was being billed as “revolutionary radical political women performers.”

The three of us were on stage sound checking franticly when one of the women organizers elbows her way past the sound guy. She’s an L.A. suntanned white girl with long blonde dreads spiraled in a lopsided pile on top of her head. She’s sporting an ankle length “wrap” made from a multi-colored tapestry that looks like she bought it at what she might call an “ethnic” store. She has a tank top tied around her neck in the same pattern, different color combination of red, orange, yellow. She has a clipboard, she’s in charge and she’s pissed. Slapping her palm down on the stage, she points a finger at the bass player and barks, “you know, if you’re a guy you have to wear a dress on stage. You need to find a dress. Now.” We look at each other. It was almost nine o’clock. Stores were closed. We were supposed to play in ten minutes. Matt, our bass player who’s round face is always sporting a smile, looks up from his bass, smiles and asks, “Um…know where I could find one?” Eric, our lanky drummer who in addition to drumming does double duty as a father and clothing designer, pulls out a crumpled white prom dress from his bass drum. Tries to yank it over his head. “Is everyone wearing a dress?” It’s to small for him. He tries to pull it up over his knees. Still too small.

Rebuffed and snorting resentful puffs from flaring nostrils, she blurts out something like “Work on finding one—give it some effort guys. You need to support your sisters, yo.”

She pronounces sisters like sistahs and yo like a command. Why do I find it irritating when white people say yo? I don’t think it rolls off our tongues easily. I know a couple of white people, whose working class tongues can wrap around yo gracefully. But for the rest of us, it sputters out from between our lips like two pieces of stringy spittle—yyy-ooo. Makes my teeth itch.

Great, I’m thinking. A tightly wound event organizer with an attitude, who thinks making men wear skirts will help close the gender divide. Don’t get me wrong, I’d gladly wear a skirt for a good cause. The guys in my band love to dress up. If the promoters of the show wanted it that way, none of us would have any problem showing some leg for an evening. I don’t even have a problem with dress codes in general—they have their place. However, no one had mentioned a dress (or skirt) code. Now, we have a embittered stage manager yelling at us to just go find a skirt—like we all had one stashed in a back pocket or backpack and hadn’t put it on yet just to piss her off. I went to the bathroom wondering why they didn’t keep a box of skirts backstage for instances like this?

What got me muttering under my breath was the idea that making men wear skirts equalizes anything. I know misogynist drag queens and homophobic frat boys who wear dresses on stage—neither of which address gender oppression in any particularly revolutionary way. Having men in skirts doesn’t make me believe they know how to back me up any better than they could wearing pants, or shorts, or suits. What about the trans men and women in the show—do any of them have to wear skirts? If so, who has to and how do you decide? How is “feminizing” men via dress code (and being really rude about it) going to build an anti-sexist community? Hemlines have changed along with gender roles, women’s rights, civil liberties for g/l/b/t folks. The skirt it’s self has stitched a new identity threaded with various possibilities. Each skirt is a symbol as variable as the legs it covers. Mini skirts, suit skirts, business skirts, wrap skirts, flowing skirts, ankle length skirts, Betty Page skirts, punk rock skirts. Each one gives definition to a person. What I’m struggling to understand is how putting male performers in skirts creates a safer, or more feminist, or more women centered environment.

Instead of making men wear skirts, can we help them in addressing gender oppression of all kinds? Can we help them learn how to call their friends out in a locker room sexist shake down? Can we help them gain the skills to interrupt homophobia when it happens across bar stools at their local watering hole? Gender oppression puts us all in tight, narrow boxes. Neither feminine nor masculine is inherently bad and personally, I want macho, heterosexual (looking) men of all kinds to know how to call out sexism—in their own language. I can’t expect that a man calling out homophobia at a football game or on a construction site will use the same language I would.
I keep wondering how identifying sisterhood with dresses will liberate us? How are men on stage in skirts backing up a woman any more feminist or revolutionary than two guys in pants backing up said woman? How can we learn to support each other if we have codes about what a feminist man looks like (or a feminist woman)—especially if that “look” involves using rigid codes of gender identity that keep us isolated and separated from each other—like said skirts? Instead of wrapping our white middle class feminist consciousness around serapes bought at “Authentic/Ethnic” stores, let’s drape our brothers and sisters from everywhere in love and respect and dignity.
We can work with the men in our lives, in our bedrooms and in-between our legs to create models of liberated and respectful relationships. We can share and compare these with each other. For those folks who don’t want to be around men, have at it—as much as you can, don’t be. But, please don’t think forcing them to wear skirts when you do have to be around them makes them any less male, or masculine, or threatening, or capable of understanding gender oppression, or even better dressed.

Making men wear dresses does not break down linear definitions of gender and does not help us see gender as the fluid and ever developing phenomena it is. How can we learn to embrace trans people of all kinds of genders and orientations, fems, butchs, girly straight chicks, macho-feminist men, women who like porn, sex workers of all genders and orientations, fat chicks, muscled chicks, skinny dudes, beefy dudes, bisexual folks, asexual folks, pan sexual folks and everyone else on this sexual planet if we treat each other so badly at some “revolutionary” performance show? Getting distracted by a skirt means we often miss opportunities to do the real work; changing how gender oppression connects to and supports other forms of oppression; creating revolutionary gender oriented change in our shows, our relationships, our non-profits, our sex lives, our families, our bedrooms, our friendships, our social interactions and our way of being in the world.

I’m not feeling it in the skirt—yo.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Let's Get To Work

Listen…you can hear it...

all the shock jock nonsense, no sense making noise drumming, chest thumping big boys with a microphone jabbing right, left hooks into radio lines in a static fervor pitch, elbowing into airspace with a smug sneer and statistical fabrication.

Got to love stats, they are like that little boy in 3rd grade who followed you around, 3rd grade reverence in his 3rd grade eyes. You can make them do just about anything.

Listeners beware, buyers beware—objects of hate may be bigger than imagined in your rearview mirror. Hindsight being all that it is and all that. Looking back may be a step worse for wear, wearing badges of war torn imaginations igniting thunderous declarations of dishonesty. Crazy how these radio hucksters shucking their evil mythology rely on good old fashion know how to the tune “if someone don’t understand you, say it louder”, and louder and louder still. It’s not a matter of truth, it’s a matter of volume.

You know the drill. We drill them out, tune them out, thinking their linguistic sewage won’t seep into our brain space. But like any toxic sludge it’s got an impact radius and ecological boot print bigger than any bad ass alternative statistics shouting back, or talk show debate with pseudo civil, pressed suit wearing, turn taking hosts who believe they help facilitate “the truth” by making room for “both sides”. They call it objective. I call it ratings making, money making hypnotica.

There are things that are not debatable.

But the shock jocks just get louder, the TV hosts smile wider and CNN keeps us hypnotized and otherwise occupied. And name calling, truth telling illusion busting savants are waved aside with volume control and statistical squabbling. Like spitting in the wind. These epistemological wizards concoct magical illusions with just enough spice to make them seem tangible. Debatable.

And like a street fighter gunning to find a puffed up and pissed off wanna be boxer with a one two punch that telegraphs itself like Christmas lights, all they have to do is parry with a few well placed words and then duck under the one-two with a Cheshire smile that says trust me, I work for you. And even though your gut is rumbling, you chalk it up to the chicken curry and Guinness from last night and keep on listening like an accident you don’t want to know the details about but you can’t stop staring at. Our Manichean shock jocks jerking heads around reality demand debates about the un-debatable because it’s an effective way to spin the truth into the fantastical. And we are living in fantastical times.

The bad news about that is that bad news is not only a better headline, it captivates us, holds our collective attention way better than news about a kitten who walked 20 miles home! A woman who survived being struck by lightening! A pig that called 911! Or, a woman who finds ten thousand dollars and gives it back!

The good news about this is that we can train ourselves to listen to the good news as a reminder that we still need to fight and listen to the bad news to rev us up like Jason Statham, kicking and flipping and knuckle punching to a bad brains song.

And like any good street fighter, we need to train for street fighting, be lean mean no debating machines. Truth is not up for prime time Sprite sponsored Q&A. We need to get back to the basics of philosophical uncertainty. The world is not a safe place; The universe is not here to provide you with whatever you manifest with active visualizations like a one stop shopping deity dispenser. You can’t get shoes by being grateful or a Prada handbag by putting out good vibes. You’ve got to actual work. So, let’s get to work. The radio lines are full; the competition is in shape and is ready to rumble. Let’s go kick some shock jock ass.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

They Are Coming To Get You

1. They Are Coming To Get You

Mostly, I remember the door crashing in and three men in white looming over me. Then I remember my mom, wild-eyed, black hair flying behind her, racing to the bathroom at the end of the narrow hallway. The bathroom door held steady as the men pounded on it. My sister was at the end of the hallway somewhere and in my mind I see her ducking into the doorway across the hall as my mom dashed to get into the bathroom—I am not sure if my sister is in the bathroom with my mom because the men fill the narrow hall and I can’t see anything but them. I remember hoping that wherever she was, my sister was out of the way of their huge feet and enormous arms that were swinging in every direction. The men are big and cumbersome like giants lumbering in the small apartment. They engulf the small space, the three of them and they are pounding on the door while telling my mom, “we are here to help.”

The next thing I remember is sitting on the hood of my dad’s green Chevy nova. He is standing next to me, leaning on the car. We’re silent as we watch the three men pull my mom down the stairs. She is struggling and screaming still wild-eyed. I think how strong she is. I am impressed that even though it is three to one and she is bound in a straight jacket, they struggle to contain her. She is strong even though her arms are tied down tight on her chest. Other men are telling me they are here to help. “She needs help.” They say, “Your mother needs help. We are the good guys here.” Good guys, I thought, are not supposed to break down doors that don’t belong to them. Good guys don’t push moms to the ground with big knees. I don’t say this because I am scared they will take me too. I nod and try to look as strong as my mom. But I keep my eyes down on the shiny green paint and trace circles with my index finger.


I try not to feel like I betrayed my mom. But I did. My dad told me to tell her I wanted to go to a movie. He told me which one so that the time would be right. I should have known something bad would happen. I think I did. But without understanding the knot in my stomach when I told my mom I wanted to go see Xanadu that afternoon, I thought it was just another weird feeling in a series of bad moments that seemed to be part of being a kid. So I didn’t say no to my dad. The plan, I found out, as I was sitting on my dads green Chevy Nova watching my mother being dragged from her apartment, had been for my sister and I to be here when the men came to take her so that she didn’t do anything “stupid”. I wondered what he meant by “stupid”. What would be a stupid thing to do when three men break down your front door and drag you out of your home in a straight jacket in front of your two daughters in the middle of the afternoon? I thought that was stupid. Not right. I thought her fighting and yelling was smart. I didn’t say this. Just thought it like I thought about my feeling bad for telling her I wanted to go to a matinee. I never remember my mom saying anything specific about being under surveillance. But I remember checking the car and my bedroom for bugs and trying to pull the bathroom mirror off the wall to make sure there wasn’t a camera behind it. It was clear we were being watched and recorded. That we had to be careful. I felt bad because she had been trying to be careful but I tricked her. I wonder if I knew deep down what was going to happen. I don’t think so. But I wonder. I think that maybe I was even told what was gong to happen in some obscure adult language like, “We are going to help her,” that I could choose to ignore and pretend not to hear like the angry words that got thrown around like dishes and sometimes furniture.

My sister and I adapted differently to the screaming, the slammed doors, the thumps and bumps in the night. She acquired the survival skill of invisibility. I have seen her shimmer then turn transparent when the fighting started. Like an apparition, she would be there one moment and the next she would be gone. She learned this skill along with the fine art of hiding in concealed corners and undetectable nooks and crannies from our uncle who sought her out whenever he was around and she was alone. That day she used her powers and I have no recollection of where she was while I sat on the hood of our dad’s car, or how she got out of the apartment. Fear narrows your focus to what you need to notice to survive while simultaneously heightening your senses. I remember the shocking white of the men in suits, but not what their voices sounded like. I remember the heat of the sun soaking through my leg as I sat on the car, but not what I was wearing. My sister remembers everything. She could tell me what we were both wearing that day, what day of the week it was and probably the name of the hospital they took our mom to. My memory is less exact, my stories more a combination of fragments, sensations, imaginations and a desire to share the essence of “what was” rather than a listing of “what occurred”. What I remember, as I sat on top of the sun-warmed car, watching the men lift my mom, legs kicking, body wrangling as they tightened their grip and shoved her lengthwise into the back of the van, was thinking, “Well, I guess she was right, they are coming to get you.”

2. Let’s Do The Thorazine Shuffle

She is at the end of a long corridor shuffling towards me, listing to the left, her spine a study in arches. Shoulders rolled forward towards the tile floor, lower back undulating outward, her head tilted sharply, like her body, to the left. Her fingers are tightly curled, claw hands attached to forearms, which also curl into her body like she is folding in on herself in slow motion. Florescent lights beam smudgy light on her as she shuffles down the hallway. She is not looking at me. She stares at the dirty beige floor like it is holding her up. She is stiff. Hardened as if her muscles have frozen around her bones and are refusing to thaw under the buzzing lights. I expect to hear ripping as she steps, tearing of frozen muscle from bone. Instead I hear the shuffle of her slippered feet dragging along the floor, swooshing heavily in my direction.

She sits down awkwardly, dropping her body into the hard plastic chair next to me. Up close, her face is pulled in like her shoulders, fingers and arms. Facial muscles tightened back to one side in a sneer. The corners of her mouth are wet and her soft white skin is puffy and glistening. She is drooling. She draws a claw across her moth and tries (I think) to smile. It is difficult to tell. She leans into me, her lower body sinking exaggeratedly into the chair as she thrusts her upper half towards me. I resist my initial impulse to pull away. It takes a few moments for me to realize she is trying to talk. Her mouth working furiously left-right. Puffs of breath, then small sounds, then finally faint words begin to tumble out of her curled and chapped lips. She asks how I am. “I’m fine.” I say. She says she is sorry. I wonder exactly what she is sorry for. It seemed to me like I should be telling her I’m sorry. I think this but I am not sure how to say it. I know what I want to say but the words don’t feel big enough. So I put my hand on her shoulder. Her muscles are tight. Scary tight. Wound up, knotted like the slabs of frozen beef we’d get on Sunday mornings from Alpha Beta’s frozen food section. It is not a strong solid muscle. I want her to feel strong but she feels rigid. Frozen.

My mom leans closer in to me, her head teetering, neck veins popping and says, “Cristien, I know I am crazy. I know I am not ok sometimes. But this place, this medicine they give me. It makes me crazier.” I look deep into her eyes. Her clear, sharp blue eyes. And I can’t say anything. Words will not push past the concrete block in my throat. I want to smash the walls. I want to punch through three feet of cement and plaster. I want to be solid like Wonder Woman even thought I hate her American flag outfit and she is way to skinny but I am 13 years old and she is the only woman super hero I can think of. I want to lasso the whole stupid building, doctors and all, and smash it on a mountainside. I want to rip the doors off their hinges and take my mom out of here so we can go to breakfast at Denny’s like we used to on Saturday mornings. I want to shake her. Shake her until she stops being stiff and frozen. Shake her until she can walk and talk and smile.

I think all this as I stare into the clear sharp blue of my mother’s eyes. And because I can’t punch through three feet of cement and plaster and fly away with my mother out of the beige cell she has been put in by big men who keep telling me “We are the good guys here, Cristien, we are here to help”, because of all this I can only nod. I feel her frozen shoulder under my fingers and I keep looking into her eyes and two small words escape past the cement block in my throat and make a mad dash through my lips. “I know.”

3. Medicating Ourselves To Madness

Looking back, I realize I should feel lucky that my mom wasn’t given a lobotomy, which was used wildly by psychiatric hospitals until chlorpromazine was introduced in 1954. Or be glad that she wasn’t given electric shock therapy, introduced in the 1930’s and still in widespread use to this day. I should, I suppose feel lucky that she was just given Thorazine, which is in fact cholopromazine, a “chemical lobotomy” with brutal side effects including, twitching or uncontrollable movements of your eyes, lips, tongue, face, arms, or legs; tremor, drooling, trouble swallowing, problems with balance or walking; seizures, black-outs or convulsions, jaundice , unusual thoughts or behaviors (which I thought was what the drug was supposed to stop), urinating less than usual or not at all (um, that can’t be good…), slow heart rate, weak pulse, fainting, slow breathing or breathing may stop altogether (that can’t be good either). But, I don’t feel lucky my mom received a chemical lobotomy. I feel, angry, even bitter sometimes. It is after all, a bitter pill to swallow.

I wasn’t so bitter when my parents announced they were getting a divorce when I was seven years old. I was happy, or at least not distressed in the typical sense. I didn’t feel responsible or guilty like many children do. I felt relief, hope and some sadness of course, which sat quietly next to a bigger feeling of excited anticipation. I was relieved to not be in the middle of the chaotic, angry, mess of a marriage my parents tried to hold together as young adults. Sad that they were both in so much pain and hopeful that things would get better if they lived separately. We were all scared of my dad so it seemed like a good idea for the three of us to live alone. It wasn’t. You see, coming from the horrific abuse my mom came from—a frontier family living in a small A-frame house in the middle of vast wilderness in Alaska. A home where her four brothers learned the fine art of drinking, stuffing and beating up their own shame mercilessly at the expense and safety of the women trying to survive in the same small A-Frame. A home where the women learned to eat their shame and rage along with that of the men’s in stoic silence even as the bruises faded. This is where she same from. From this family, where my mother’s face was rubbed into vomit spewed by her brother on a 3-day bender, trying unsuccessfully to loose himself over and over and over. From this family where women were treated like dogs, literally at times, made to eat dog food and drink from the red plastic bowl on the kitchen floor on all fours, “like a bitch.” No telling what her brothers endured having learned from their father this kind of inhumanity. From this family, I have no doubt our household would seem manageable, nice and even civilized. But when things got rough and my mother called her mother for help, she was told to lie down like a doormat and take it. “Like a dog. Like the bitch you are.” I imagine my grandmother saying to my mom in-between long drags on her Pall Malls. I know she was also talking to herself. Talking to her own shame of not being able to protect herself or any of the young girls she brought into this world. Her shame nestled deep next to the pain of knowing exactly what they would endure. The generational legacy of women holding pruned and work worn fingers over each other’s mouths while clamping their own lips tightly shut.

When my grandmother flew down from Alaska to “take care of things”, I remember thinking at last my parents will stop fighting. I could not have anticipated what happened. My mother bashed through generations of feminine survival with a tried and true tactic of women everywhere. Instead of hitting me and my sister, slapping into us her shame of not being able to keep us safe from the very things she still won’t remember, instead of lying down and taking it, like a dog, she went crazy. And I love her for it. I really do. It was hard at times. But that is not what this story is about. This story is about the crazy response I saw people—adults, men, doctors, professionals, healers, and helpers—have to what I saw as a reasonable response to being made to eat dog food, dodge flying fists and absorb angry words that tear into your flesh and cling to your soul like bitter burs. My mom fought back the one way she knew how, her anger and shame channeled into a paranoia of being under constant surveillance—not that odd of a concern for sexual abuse victims who are acutely aware that they are in fact being watched and monitored by those in power.

At the time I was embarrassed, ashamed and wanted nothing more than a mom like Mrs. Eskaville. Diane, as she insisted we call her, was a raven-haired goddess of a mom, always in perfect make up and never sweaty which was weird to me because in the 100-degree heat of California summers I almost never stopped sweating. Her pressed pant suits and sharp high heels made her look like a movie star, as did the cloud of Channel No5 perfume that always surrounded her. My mom smelled like Channel No5 as well, but when I smelled my mom I also smelled her history, her perfume mingled with her complicated story and our familial struggles. Diane just smelled like Channel No5 and SauvĂ© shampoo and I loved her for smelling uncomplicated. It made her feel safe. I didn’t want to be her, or be like her two daughters, mini versions of Diane who seemed to be trying too hard to grow up too quickly which made no sense to me as I wanted nothing more than to just be able to be a kid. I was also an epic tomboy riding horses, building forts, constantly sweaty, dirty and sunburned. I had no desire to try to wear pantsuits and certainly no use for high heels, but I longed to come home to Diane Eskaville and her freshly baked cookies. Of course, I didn’t feel worthy of her; the legacy of the family bitch did not escape me. But I could let myself dream sometimes. Let myself escape the reality of instable, chaotic madness for the sterile Stepford housewife world of consistency and stability. Sometimes in my fantasy world I would feel a sharp pang of despair because I believed I betrayed my mom by wanting the fantasy. I understood she made a choice. That even a Stepford wife would snap. You cannot, after all, make a person be a dog. I understood that her descent into madness would never be cured by medication that tried to make her a sterile version of herself rather allowing her to be the complicated messy survivor she was. And, just as I loved her for being a strong survivor, there were moments when I, along with the rest of society, hated the survivor because they force us to see and acknowledge the very things they endured. I feel lucky my moments of anger at my mother never transformed into pathologizing or calling her ability to survive ‘symptoms” of anything other than what they were: fucked up behaviors coming from a fucked up mom from a fucked up family living in a fucked up world trying to cope in fucked up ways. Fuck.

4. The Power Of Denial

Fuck. It’s complicated. But not that complicated. If a 13 year old girl can see the transparency in the pharmaceutical company’s message delivered by a white man with a soothing voice, serious white coat and dignified gestures designed to simultaneously put you at ease and put you in your place, why are we still beating the medicinal mantra of magic bullets?

The man in the white coat, now dressed in a Men’s Warehouse casual suit and clogs no longer sits behind a desk, but in a backless rolling chair stethoscope dangling around a button up shirt or REI smart wool pullover and they believe in the magic bullets they are prescribing. Their sincerity is real and the message simple: We are here to help alleviate your suffering and we know how. That the actual science does not back up their claim is of little consequence, a small cog in a much larger machine. A machine that ate my mother up and spit her out, a shuffling, drooling, twitching ghost of her former self. It’s a complicated mess. It is our mess, my family’s mess but also our national collective mess and I want some help cleaning it up.

My mom wasn’t suffering from a brain chemical imbalance; she was suffering because she was being abused. Her serotonin did not make her more vulnerable to disconnecting from reality, that’s a reasonable response when your reality is unbearable. Her behaviors, while unpredictable, were a reasonable response to the predictable reproduction of violence and abuse.

As a nation we have a long history of blaming the victim. We minimize their stories, diagnose their survival strategies, prescribe pills for their pain because it seems easier than acknowledging the horrific reality of sexual abuse. We pathologize feelings and blunt curiosity because the truth is seemingly unbearable, even as those who bear it find ways to do so with astounding dignity. We are being told with checklists and 5-minute Internet surveys that we are a nation of depressed and serotonin deficient citizens in desperate need of chemical regulation. I don’t want a regulated volk—personally I’d rather have an army of men and women who aren’t so numbed and regulated that they aren’t pissed off that fucked up shit happens, angry that their friends are being hurt and are willing to try to do something about it.

5. Still Crazy

My mom is still crazy but she doesn’t drool and the right side of her face is in sync with the left side of her face. And when she smiles, she looks happy. This matters. That she got to this place mostly on her own rather than a miracle drug or chemical re-balancing is not a minor issue. People move through their pain. We heal with or without our (or other’s) consent.

Her healing has changed both of us. My mother and I have learned to tango cautiously around each other dipping and swaying like clumsy bulls that have finally learned to not stomp on one another and have achieved some kind of bull-like grace. Perfection is over rated. Grace is not flawless perfection, it is the grounded confidence that there are and always will be flaws that make us human, make us vulnerable to learning and acting on hateful ways of surviving, but also allow us to be unbelievable complex enough to un-learn these things, and this means so much more than polished, airbrushed sterile role models inflexible in their demand for unattainable perfection. Grace contains both dark and light pain and healing, disillusionment and hope, like the sad and angry edges of my mother’s smile.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

How do you decide what to share?

How do I choose what to share with the people in my life? What do I share with the person who I wake up with on a regular basis, sometimes still dreaming, sometimes hiding behind the veil of sleep while the nightmares fade or a vision of hope whispers quietly for me to let it go, let the nightmares go.

What do I share with the people who I sometimes think just magically tumbled into my world in a numbed out hazy whirlwind of fleeting vulnerability and who I hope won’t get blown like a sun bleached tumbleweed back out of my life.

Because I’m trying to get stable, de-stabilize the dysfunctional familiar and figure out what it means to be stable all at once. Stable. Like a rock. Like a homing device. Like a shiver. Stable like a traveler who is always packing, even when they are at home. Stable like an expert at good-byes who has learned how to say hello and let it sit there without anticipating the end. Stable like someone who can be still, rest, reflect. Like someone who can take stock in what gets upheld as the right way, which is often the white way and taking stock in this way means finding the skin under the skin. The soft underbelly that tenaciously contains everything I have come to know as me and the hard outer shell that reflects my socially constructed self like a pair of mirrored sunglasses pinching the skin on your nose.

What to share?

The wisps of steamed conversations with the people I bring in the closest and yet keep the furthest at bay. What boundaries, or lack of boundaries, do we share? What transgressions do we silently agree on? What’s an arms length when you’re wrapped around the center of someone? How do we trust people to love us, people who have been taught to abuse us but make the decision not to? How do you trust yourself to not to lash back anticipating an unimaginable but well-known pain that never comes? How do you trust the density of skin touching skin, a silent shiver of contentment that you resent sometimes because you know how it feels when it fades into the background absorbed by noisy, punchy, invasive thoughts crowding in like blackberry vines sucking onto every surface with thorny delight.

I am taking this opportunity to stand firm on the unstable ground of love. Be unshakeable yet shaken and stirred. A time to ask, how you deconstruct love as an anti-racist. How you fuck as a revolutionary? How do you bicker with those who climb under your skin, inside you, while sharing borders which while open, clearly designate where you both begin and end? What does it mean to hold your own ground and give yourself into history while looking forward? And fucking?

I know how it feels to cross borders of sexual guardedness—to fuck with your guard up and down—to be utterly vulnerable yet unreachable. Untouchable. Untraceable. Unarmed, but critically dangerous. These paths I know—I can trace and re-trace them in the outline of my feet, my steps always facing forward even when they have swerved from an unsteady nervousness or a drunken bravado. You can travel and talk in so many directions. You can back down or back up or back track or back someone else up. You do this when everyone around you backs up, rams forward, pitches into madness or tries on happiness for a while. And while dipping and swirling on my crisscrossing paths, it seems surprising, even alarming that the outlines of both my feet continue to face forward. Until now, when the shadows of my toes curl under to face east, west, north, south without picking a direction but taking in history from as many directions as possible.

Like a city metro map, these paths and borders decussate, intersect and merge--political, sexual, emotional, psychological, psychosomatic, imaginary, elementary and fundamental. Cityscapes of blue lines, red dashes, yellow highlighted points of interest.

Meanwhile back in my own head and bed the person I wake up with dress and re-dress ourselves in various layers of vulnerability in an attempt to touch ground for the first time in both of our lives.

How do you touch ground and be grounded in the uncertainty of what is right because we only seem to know “right” when what is wrong fucks us up.

How do you fuck while being present to your privilege and honor the thin skin you developed to let the things that shouldn’t stay inside you, out?

These self help books and tapes, videos and reality shows, talk shows and talking head productions, produce people productively prioritizing various pains into the “right” spaces, which is often cramming them into the “white spaces” that seem to share the same space as my forward facing feet.

Continental plates are drifting apart; borders are exchanging meaningful glances rearranging themselves in acts of self-defense, self-denial and self-aggrandizement.

History remains history, even when parts remain undocumented. And the undocumented will present us with a history that will not remain invisible to the cameras or the eyes of those who choose to listen.

How do you heal the wounds of invisibility? How do you learn to love intensely in such a mirage of stability rumbling beneath the flat-footed falseness of normalcy?

What do you choose to share with your lovers, past, present and future who may be able to whisper sweet social change into your ear with the hot breath of an anti-racist but can still fuck you over after fucking you well because the tools of survival leave you layered in contradictions.

How do you remain fluid while having a firm sense of self and clear boarders?

How do you decide what to share when you are not sure what is being recorded, documented, disposed of?

How do you hold onto to necessary secrets when your every move can telegraph parts of your story to anyone who dares to pay attention?

You share by being vulnerable,
and that’s hard.