If Not Me, Who?

I was born on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in 1969, the year after he was murdered in Memphis, so our lives never overlapped, not even a little.  Despite that, I’ve always felt a kind of kinship to the man; for as long as I’ve been aware of him (and I learned of Dr. King very early, sharing, as I do, a birthday with him), I’ve felt that something about his energy and mine resonates; that I carry, even if only a little, some of his legacy.

When I was about 6 or 7, the family lore goes, I made an offhand comment to the effect that I was sad that I was born when I was; my greatest regret is that I wasn’t born in time to march with Dr. King; though several friends have pointed out that one can’t regret something over which one has no control – like the timing of one’s birth – the fact remains that the feeling I have is best described as regret, so that’s what I’m running with.

I am an empath; I feel, deeply and profoundly.  I believe that others’ suffering – even if I have no tangible connection to it – makes my life less.  I believe that we are less free when others are oppressed.   I also believe that we are all made better when good is done, wherever and whenever it is done; that an act of kindness or compassion or mercy done anywhere makes us all a little bit better.

The last few years have been particularly difficult ones for empaths.  Sandy Hook.  Ferguson.  Charleston.  Beirut.  Nigeria.  Mali.  Iraq.  Turkey.   ISIS.  Boko Haram.  Al Qaeda.  Al-Shabaab.  Al-Nusra.  The Taliban.   Angry, frightened white men and racist police in this country (and that’s not even talking about governmental policies in this country that are specifically designed to disadvantage particular groups of people).

Seriously; it’s enough to make some of us feel like withdrawing from life altogether.  The amount of suffering we seem to delight in heaping on one another can feel overwhelming.

It occurred to me the other day, though, that I no longer have cause to regret being born when I was.  I may have come to this party too late to stand with Dr. King, but there is more than enough opportunity for me to carry that legacy in the here and now.

There’s not much I can practically do, really; I mean, I can donate to ethical causes and I can continue to support my local community, but in terms of big, sweeping gestures, I’m pretty limited (though I am doing some preliminary research into how my family can foster an unaccompanied refugee; more on that later).  Really though, the biggest things I can do are commit to my teaching practice and to continue to call out, unapologetically and loudly, all of the racist, xenophobic, jingoistic, hysterical bullshit whenever and wherever I see it.  I will NOT allow my silence to be mistaken for my agreement; I will NOT stand by while my brothers and sisters – ANY of my brothers and sisters – are denigrated, dehumanized, or oppressed.

I am one little voice, but I will continue to scream.  I am one little body, but I will continue to stand up.



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The Perils of Being an Empath

For quite a long time now, writing has been absent from my day-to-day life. I used to be quite a prolific writer, and I enjoyed the process of thinking and observing and writing very much, but I have let the habit slide and, as a consequence, have fallen well out of practice.

This evening, I pulled up a recipe from Stupid Easy. Beanie had wandered down from her bedroom lair to socialize, and she parked herself in front of my computer while I was cooking, occasionally relaying ingredient measurements to me, but mostly reading old posts on the site. At one point, she turned to me and said, “Mummy, I love how you write. Reading your writing feels like talking to you.”

It’s not the first time I’ve been paid that highest of compliments. Many years ago, I had an opportunity to meet Michael in real life. We had been blog buddies for about a year and a half at that point when we discovered that we grew up in the same neighborhood. One day, Michael mentioned that he was heading ‘home’ from Alabama to visit his family. I asked him where ‘home’ was, and it turned out that it was exactly where I grew up (which is an easy car ride from where I live now). Anyway, we made plans to meet while he was there, and after about five minutes over our salads at Bertucci’s, he paid me the highest writing compliment I’d yet received; “I know this sounds weird, since we only just met, but I feel like we’ve been friends for years. You write exactly like you sound.”

Bean’s echoing of that compliment flipped a switch. I have been feeling like I need to write more – that part of the reason that I’ve been feeling so overwhelmed and so skittish and so restless and, yeah, kind of hunted is that I’ve not had an outlet for all the things that I see, think, and feel.

I’m working as a teacher at the moment. A few weeks ago, I printed out and gave my students an agenda that helps them to set clear and specific goals, and I printed one out for myself, as well. I decided that my goal for November is to plan more dinners (dinner time can be very stressful after a long day. “What do you want for dinner?” I don’t know, what do YOU want? “I don’t know. What do we have in the house?” Gah!), but now I’m thinking that I’m going to add another little goal. Next week, I’m going to write two pieces – probably here. The week after, maybe I’ll write three. Regardless of the amount, I’m going to build writing back into my life. I need the outlet.

Maybe a regular writing practice will help me sleep more at night.

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There is No “Other”

Last week, Donald Trump (I know; bear with me) held an event in a town not far from where I live. During this event, he took questions from the crowd (which, given the nature of the people who would be likely to attend a Donald Trump rally, seems a bit of a risk and makes me wonder what his campaign managers were thinking, but that’s a conversation for another time).

What happened next should have come as a surprise to exactly nobody. Some cretin stood up and proclaimed that – and I’m quoting here – “We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims. You know our current president is one. You know he’s not even an American.”

Trump, laughing, said, “We need this question. This is the first question.” Please note here that no effort was made by Trump or his campaign to shut this guy down.

“Anyway,” Mr. Cretin continues, “we have training camps growing where they want to kill us. “That’s my question: When can we get rid of them?”

Now, let me say here – as an English teacher who’s also a reasonable human being – that it is entirely possible that Mr. Cretin was expressing, in his own limited way, that he’s concerned about ISIS and Taliban training camps (though the “we” in his sentence makes me wonder if he thinks said training camps are located in the US, but really, who knows what’s happening in that fevered, frightened little brain of his) and he wants to hear from his candidate about what the government might be relied upon to do to try to limit their effectiveness (if not their very existence). It’s possible that that’s what this guy was asking; that his facility with language is such that he wasn’t able to clearly express that idea, and that he didn’t have enough education (or it didn’t stick well enough) for him to discern his unclear pronoun references, but I really don’t think that’s what was happening here.

The fact that Mr. Cretin opened his comment by specifically mentioning this country’s “problem” with Muslims is the first clue that I have to tell me that he wasn’t being nuanced, and he wasn’t talking about training camps in the Middle East.  Further, the fact that Mr. Cretin expresses the idea that “they want to kill us” immediately before asking “when can we get rid of them” tells me that Mr. Cretin isn’t talking about the camps at all.  He’s scared of Muslims; he was talking about icky, scary brown people in his country.

Mr. Cretin was advocating for ethic cleansing, plain and simple.  And, more to the point, I bet if you asked Mr. Cretin if he’d be okay with rounding American Muslims up and sticking them on boats and airplanes and shipping them off the continent, he’d think that would be a capital piece of domestic policy.

Now, there are a couple of things about this that horrify and disgust me.

First, this guy is my neighbor.  I mean, he doesn’t literally live in the house next door (and, as far as I know, he remains “unidentified”), but he may as well; we live in the same area and I am a fellow in this man’s community.

Up until now, I have comforted myself into thinking that my neighbors don’t think like Mr. Cretin.  I’d managed to convince myself that I share my space with decent, reasonably well educated, moderate human beings who have a base level of respect for the dignity of all people, regardless of their race or gender or ethnicity or religion.

Mr. Cretin (and all the other people who were at that event) has convinced me that I’ve been kidding myself.

Second, and perhaps more frightening, is that the mainstream of one of the two major political parties in this country has worked tirelessly for years now to cultivate just this kind of attitude among is base and almost NOTHING has been done to counter that narrative.  This guy, and countless others like him, are the direct and inevitable result of the xenophobic, racist, and bigoted rhetoric and policy the Republican party has been championing for nearly a decade.  What scares the hell out of me is how good the GOP were/are at generating this kind of hatred and how willing people are to swallow it whole and embrace it as their own.

Exhibit A: The other day, I made a comment on a Facebook post comparing Trump’s response to his Mr. Cretin  – “You know, a lot of people are saying that and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening. We’re going to be looking at that and many other things” – with McCain’s response to a Mrs. Cretin at one of his events in 2008.  In McCain’s case, a woman got hold of the microphone and said, “I can’t trust Obama… he’s an Arab.”  to which McCain replied, “No, Ma’am; he’s a decent, family man citizen…blah, blah, difference of opinion.”

On the Facebook post, I made mention of the fact that, while McCain certainly handled his xenophobe better than Trump did, McCain’s response was really pretty shitty on its face.  In denying the woman’s claim by saying that Obama is a “decent family man,” McCain set up a direct, explicit, and unfavorable comparison between “Arab” and “decent.”  “Oh, no, Mrs. Cretin; Obama’s NOT an Arab; he’s a DECENT man.”  While the response to my comment has been mostly favorable (“wow; you’re right, I never thought of that”), there have been a bunch of “oh, get over yourself you whiney, liberal crybaby” responses, too.

Between Mr. Cretin and his fellows and the news about the deplorable situation for Syrian refugees fleeing into Europe (and don’t get me started on the comments under news articles about cities in the US whose mayors have offered to take in some of those refugees), I have been have been heartbroken lately.

My yoga message for my class today was about actively rejecting the “us vs. them” narrative that is so horribly present in our day to day right now.  I want people to stop thinking about people as “others” and to remember that every human being is worthy and deserving of love and respect and decency simply because they exist.

On my way home from yoga class this morning, I was listening to On the Media on NPR.  One of the stories was about people in Austria and Germany who’ve been volunteering to help the refugees, and about some of the creative ways they’ve found to offer comfort and aid to people who desperately need it.  The story that got to me was of a young man in Vienna who is talented with computers and IT.  He has gone to a train station to set up WIFI or 3G for refugees so they can be in touch with family and friends.  When asked how long he’d keep coming back to do this work, he replied with “I will be here until nobody needs me no more.”

I wept all the way home.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about money lately.

I really kind of hate thinking about money.  I’m not good at it, there’s a lot about economics that I just don’t understand and, frankly, the entire idea of money fucks with my head.  Think about it; money and everything about it is an ENTIRELY MADE UP CONCEPT.  Everything about how we’ve decided to order money and monetary value is essentially pulled out of our collective asses.  Sure, you can argue that this thing – say, a computer – is worth more than that thing – say, a cucumber – because of engineering and assembly and materials costs, blah, blah, blah, but someone explain to me why, say, a diamond is worth more than, say, a garnet.  Someone explain to me why a science teacher should be paid more than an art teacher (or why a man should be paid more than a woman) or why we think that some professions “deserve” more money than others.  Seriously; given the choice between a bank CEO and my garbage guy, I think my garbage guy should be getting the cushy salary.

So, I posted this article on facebook the other day, and it started a conversation about whether or not we can even begin to upend the way we think about money and society.  At one point, a friend asked this:

“What would you do if your were guaranteed that your needs for food, clothing, shelter, and education would be covered?”

I keep hearing people tell me that there’s no way that this model would work; that people require motivation – and in this stage of our evolution, that motivation is largely economic and competitive – in order to actually DO anything. Without some sort of competitive motivation, people keep telling me, we’d just sit around mooching off the system.

I wonder if that’s really true, though.  That may be the case now, and for some people, but not for everyone.

Take ME, for example. I WANT to be a teacher, despite the shitty pay (and no exaggeration; it’s really bad, especially in the environments – small charter schools – where I do best) and the crappy working conditions and the utter contempt that our society seems to have for teachers lately. I LOVE teaching, and it’s what I WANT to do, and I do it with little consideration for how I’m monetarily compensated for it.

Now, if my husband weren’t an engineer who makes decent money, I wouldn’t – I couldn’t – BE a teacher because there’s no way I could afford to support my family on a teaching salary.  If my husband were to die tomorrow (and we didn’t have life insurance), I would have to consider other ways to make a living; my teaching salary would be insufficient to maintain our house and to send my kids to college (both things that I consider essential to maintaining our current standard of living).  Failing finding a job that could meet my current financial needs, I’d have to adjust my standard of living “downward;” certainly to a different living arrangement, and likely to adjusted expectations about what kind of support my girls could expect from me as they begin their own lives independent of our family as a unit.

How many people get that freedom, though? I’m going to argue that precious few do, and here’s were I make the point that my husband didn’t feel he had that freedom; he became an engineer because he saw it as more fiscally lucrative than doing what he REALLY wanted to do, which was become an architect or a toy designer.  Working, as I do, with high school students, I’m constantly exposed to kids who are making choices about their continuing education based almost solely on the expected financial return of certain career choices. My own daughter summed it up today, in fact, while we were out walking. “I’m going to go to college eventually, probably for 7 years, and I’m going to come out with a pile of debt and no guarantee of a job to pay down that debt (and probably doing a job that I don’t really love, anyway).” I hear people discourage people ALL THE TIME with lines like “what kind of JOB are you going to get with an ART/English/Philosophy degree?!”  I’ve heard freshmen in my writing program tell me that they’re in their major because they’re more confident about job and money prospects with this degree than they would be with a degree that would lead to a career that would make them “happy, but poor.”

So, here’s my question.  Have we come yet to a stage in our evolution – whether as a species writ large or as a culture in the U.S. (or elsewhere; Holland, for example, or Canada, where some places are also flirting with this idea of basic minimum income for everyone) where we’re ready to start ensuring a floor through which no one can fall and giving people the opportunity to find the work that they REALLY WANT to do?  Do you think these experiments are going to work, or are they going to collapse on themselves?


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The Pitfalls of Privilege

The pre-scripts:

First, this is what my dashboard looks like:

Screen Shot 2015-06-28 at 12.29.29 PM

Yesterday, I found a post on facebook that featured the ways that companies like Target and JetBlue were expressing support for the SCOTUS decision, and I like going out of my way to patronize businesses that are inclusive.  Kudos to WordPress for this show of support; it makes me glad that this is my platform.

Second, fair warning; this is likely to turn into a whiny post.  Proceed at your peril.

Several years ago, I was subbing a Race, Class, and Gender class for a professor of mine; I was technically a student in the class, but I had a Master’s degree and a good 20 years on the rest of the group, so the professor and I mutually agreed that I would be better served taking the course as an independent study.  Since, though her student, I was also her colleague – I teach writing classes at the university – she asked if I would cover a couple of classes for her while she was away at workshops.  During one of those classes, a panel of students from the university’s GLBTQ alliance was scheduled to come and talk to the students.

I should pause here to point out what my regular readers already know; I am a fierce, loudmouthed, insistent LGBTQ ally.  Being an ally is an integral part of my very identity; it’s a foundational pillar of how I understand myself and my place in the world.  As such, it almost never occurs to me that other people might not know this about me, and I’m surprised (and deeply bothered) when I’m subjected to the default assumption that marginalized people have to make about people in the privileged classes.

Back to my story.  It turned out that the staff member of the university’s alliance – let’s call him Alan – who brought the panel of LGBTQ students to the class that day also happened to be a regular participant in my yoga class.  I’d known Alan from yoga classes for at least a year or two by that point, and we’d had occasion to chat a bit here and there in that time; I liked him very much and I got the distinct impression that he liked me, as well.

He got the panel kids settled and, as is common in these kinds of encounters, told his story first; it’s very often the adult/leader of these kinds of groups who breaks the proverbial ice, not only as a means of modeling the process, but also to clear a path and make the space for young people/students to tell theirs.  I remember thinking at the time that Alan did a wonderful job of it, too; he was clear and seemed at ease discussing some rather complicated issues of gender identity to a group of young people (most of the host class were freshmen or sophomores) who likely had little if any experience with even contemplating anything outside of the hetero-normative script.  Once he’d gotten the ball rolling, the kids he brought with him told their stories, the panel opened the floor for questions and discussion, and the class went very, very well.

Fast forward to yesterday.  I’d been planning on getting to the first ever Pride parade in Coastal City ever since I saw the event planned on Facebook; the Supreme Court’s decision about marriage equality on Thursday only increased my enthusiasm for the trip.  I packed up the girls, picked up one of Punk’s friends (who happens to be transgender and has struggled for acceptance in his family circle) and headed over to the staging area; we found our group (the parade participants were – quite ingeniously –  sorted into colors so that, when we all converged downtown from our respective spots, we’d form a human pride flag) bought tee shirts, and marched into our place in the square.

As I was listening to the speakers, I happened to look over and spot Alan.  I knew he’d be there – his name was listed as the point person for one of the color groups – but I didn’t really have any expectation of seeing him; there were a LOT of people there (the SCOTUS ruling increased the numbers quite a bit beyond what the organizers were expecting).  I made my way to him and nearly burst into tears when he pulled me into a hug.

I found him on facebook and sent a friend request when I got home, and he commented on a photo I’d posted of the girls and me in our parade shirts.  I commented that I intended to wear the shirt to this morning’s yoga class, and that my savasana message would likely be heavily influenced by some of the thinking I’ve been doing about the events of the past week or so (it was; I spoke about rejecting the idea of scarcity, particularly when it comes to energy and dignity and equality.  There’s more than enough of that to go around, and granting other people those things does not mean there’s less for you).

Alan hadn’t been to yoga in a few weeks and I wasn’t really expecting to see him, so I was delighted when he showed up this morning wearing his parade shirt, too.  We had a lovely practice – today was a good one – and he stopped after class to talk about the experience of the demonstration and about some of the nuances of the things I said at the end of class.  It was then that he admitted that he kept two facebook profiles; one for his friends and one for his family who, I gather, are not exactly supportive of his identity.

Then, Alan said something that hit me square in the gut, though I tried my best to roll with it.  He admitted that, the day he brought the panel to my class, he was taken aback to find that I was there and that he would “have to come out to my yoga teacher.”  He didn’t say as much, but the assumption in that statement was that he worried that I would judge him, that he was opening himself up to a risk in telling his story in front of me.  Of course, he followed that up with an affirmation about how positive the experience was, and how he understands now that I’m an enthusiastic ally, but I couldn’t help feeling devastated that my presence once made him uncomfortable.

Alan’s admission bothered me so much because I’d already been pondering the cost of my privilege.  The other day, this article put me on my metaphorical knees.  How does one work around being of genuine heart while at the same time being part – through no fault of one’s own – of the oppressor class?  Worse, how does someone like me work through the recognition that it’s just not about us while simultaneously struggling with some very real emotions around intention and representation and assumption?  “Oh, poor me, the privileged, white, straight, cisgender, middle class, English speaking, well-intentioned citizen.  It’s so hard to be an ally.”  Yeah; that shit doesn’t fly.

At the same time, my heart broke when I read that article (and here’s where the whining starts).  It seems as callous to dismiss allies’ emotions as it is to dismiss those of the oppressed classes.  It wasn’t fair for the author to project his hostility onto that woman; I have no doubt she was there as an ally for the black community, and I have no doubt that she was probably carrying some pretty hefty emotions with her (how often are white people of good conscience deeply, profoundly ashamed of their whiteness in situations like these?).  He’s essentially doing to her – making assumptions about her based on what she represents to him because of her skin color – that he wants others to stop doing to him.  It’s got to stop somewhere, and while I recognize that I have exactly ZERO right to tell ANYONE how to process their emotions, I couldn’t help feeling a little indignation when reading that piece.

I am absolutely heartbroken to think that I would ever represent a threat to anyone.  Because so much of my identity is wrapped up in being an ally and in being compassionate and nurturing, I felt as though I’ve somehow failed when Alan told me about his misgivings that day, or when I read that someone is made uncomfortable by the presence of someone like me in their spaces.  I have no earthly idea what to do with those feelings though; even though I understand that part of the work of being an ally is in the bone-deep recognition that it’s not about you (notice the emphasis?), I also recognize that an important part of the work of being an ally is in tending to our own souls so we have the strength and fortitude to keep fighting.  I will continue to try to work around the way I feel when I realize that, short of tattooing “I AM AN ALLY” on my forehead, there are going to be times when my presence in a place makes someone uneasy.  I only hope that it doesn’t happen often.

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June 26, 2015


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In Case I Haven’t Made Myself Clear

I have, on the wall of my ‘office corner’ in my kitchen, a postcard that I bought from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum when I was last in D.C. It says “It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act.”


(please note, as well, the “what you do matters” button.)

I keep that postcard there to remind me that it is one thing to FEEL, but another thing entirely to DO.  Change doesn’t happen if people are standing around, wringing their hands  and clucking their tongues and lamenting the horrid state of things; change only happens when people get off their asses and work to make things better.

Yesterday, I read this post from Chookaloonks.  Go read it; I’ll wait.

As an ally, I have long been conscious of the place MY voice has in the conversations about the issues and problems facing the populations for which I advocate.  I am sensitive (and smart) enough to understand that, as a white, middle-class, straight, cis-gender, educated, English-speaking woman, I enjoy an incredible amount of privilege that many of my brothers and sisters don’t, and that, despite all my effort to be as aware of the effects that privilege has on my perspective as I can possibly be, there are going to be times – perhaps a lot of times – where I just don’t see what others are seeing.

It is because of this awareness that I realize I should probably talk a hell of a lot less than I listen, and so when something like Charleston happens, I tend to step back and hold my tongue. I’ll do some of the things Karen mentioned in her post; I’ll re-post newspaper articles and opinion pieces, I’ll share memes and quotes from others, but I’ll often refrain from speaking in my own voice because I recognize, with a kind of bitter ache, that as part of the majority, dominant group, my voice doesn’t need to be heard.  My job, when something like this happens, is to try to wedge out space for the voices of the people who are affected by the violence, the marginalization, and the discrimination that creates these situations in the first place.  My job is to listen to those people.

Karen’s post got me thinking about that stance, though, and I was instantly reminded of the postcard on my wall when I read her words.  “SAY SOMETHING,” she says, “make it clear, in your own words — not just retweeting or resharing the words of Jon Stewart or someone else — tell folks how you feel.  Take a stand, for heaven’s sake.”

I like to think that no one with even a passing familiarity with me could imagine for even a moment that I don’t abhor, loudly and vehemently, every single aspect of our culture that separates people from one another and allows us to denigrate, demean, and even kill each other.  I despise the pernicious mechanisms in nearly every aspect of our culture – our military, our economic system, and especially our “justice” and “education” systems – that keep some people down while making it easier for others to enjoy opportunity and potential.  More than that, I rail against the culture of ignorance that allows these mechanisms to remain in force; the insistence of some that we don’t even have a problem, much less that they could be in any way responsible for it.  This actually energizes a large part of my teaching practice; I expend a great deal of thought and effort into teaching my children – both biological and academic – to shun the kind of ignorance that allows us to hate one another so casually and so tragically.

So, right here and right now, I want to make sure that I have been exceedingly, transparently, obviously, and painfully clear about where I stand on issues of equality and human dignity.  When I say I’m an ally, I mean it; I’m all in, and I stand at the ready to do more than just talk about it.

Any questions?

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