One Day, One Thing More

Everyday observations

Month: November, 2016

The Long Haul

I don’t know about you, but I’m already tired. I feel like a different person than I was two weeks ago–less optimistic, more hectoring, depressive instead of just anxious. Most of the time, I’m hyper-activated, scanning the crowds I walk through for people who might pose a physical threat. I’m afraid to walk across campus alone at night, and my conversations keep turning into long rants in which I Cassandra on about the effects of authorizing hatred, how Trump will change the face of the Supreme Court in a way that will ruin countless lives, how even if Trump is incompetent, the people he’s hiring aren’t, they’re just evil. And we don’t even know what it will be like until the next San Bernadino, at which point we are all seriously fucked in a way that there’s no coming back from. And the scary thing is that most people don’t try to talk me down–the conversations often just end with us staring off into space in terrified silence.

We’re in DC for Thanksgiving, which is so, so strange. Everyone here seems to be either clad in camo hunting gear and a Make America Great Again hat or swimming in the oceans of grief behind their eyes. The memorabilia store in our hotel is full of Trump bobbleheads, next to the Clinton ones they’d foolishly bought ahead of time, jinxing us all.

We arrived on Monday, and I discovered the next day that we just missed the big White Power rally over the weekend. For all I knew, our hotel was full of people who’d stayed to sight-see for the holiday after zeig heiling our president-elect. I was in our room putting Teddy into bed when I read the news, and I felt like I could never leave. I’d looked forward to running while we were here, but now that seemed idiotic–I would just be asking for trouble. Even going down to the pool to watch my daughter swim with her cousins felt naive and foolish. A swimsuit might as well be a target. Et cetera.

I’m in this funny spot, because my experience of violence gives me first-hand insight into this whole process, but just those same experiences put me in a place where I’m so activated that my responses are simultaneously less reliable than others. Or–not less reliable, but so noisy that they get in the way of action. And what we need right now is action.

The strategy that worked the best came to me a few nights ago. I woke up at 1 AM, and immediately started my usual Roll Call for the Apocalypse: queer teenagers driven to suicide by federally funded ex-gay ministries, rising sea levels, racist cops armed with tanks and machine guns against peaceful protesters, beloved friends fleeing the country, and on and on.

I realized that the other time I felt most like this was when I was in the hospital ten years ago, after I had my colon removed. I couldn’t leave, and there was a situation completely out of my control that was progressing despite my best actions, seemingly inevitably toward destruction. One of the many things I tried to calm down was hypnosis, a strategy I’d used to sleep since I was a kid.

I had terrible insomnia as a little girl, and my parents got me this hypnosis tape, which I listened to nearly every night. A kind, avuncular voice would drone through a progressive relaxation script: “picture the muscles in the ball of your left foot, like a handful of loose rubber bands. Let everything go loose and lazy.” One side of the tape changed gears at the end to more general self-esteem and anti-anxiety stuff. “You are a good person. People enjoy your company.” It didn’t really work–I was rarely asleep by the end, and remained unconvinced by his kindness (after all, for all the disembodied voice knew, I was drowning puppies in my spare time). But all that practice made me simultaneously susceptible to hypnosis and resistant to its lure. At fairs and stage shows, I listen along and am calmed, but am never tempted to quack like a duck or forget my name.

So I tried another script in the hopes that I could recapture some of its calming effect. In this one, I’m walking down stairs, and I get deeper into hypnosis with every step. When I get to the bottom, there’s a dial, and I can physically dial down my own anxiety. In my mind, the dial was huge and steel, like the knob on an industrial oven. I paused at three–it seemed stupid to relax any further–but ultimately turned the dial all the way down to one, since I did need to sleep. And I could feel it working. Maybe this is the upside of all my PTSD magical thinking right now? If my negative thoughts have this kind of power over my world-view, maybe my positive ones do too?

I looked up from the dial, and I was in a white room with green carpeting–one that looked vaguely familiar in the way of all dream-spaces. This one was a vacation-space–a lake house or something along those lines. Close to something beautiful, set aside from the rest of the world. There was another version of me there, waiting, dressed all in white (apparently hypnosis-me is not only better at calming down, but she doesn’t spill food on herself all the time). I can’t remember if she said anything, as I was close to sleep at this point, but I knew that she could take care of me. That she was a grown up, ready to face what’s next, whatever that may be.

Here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure my apocalyptic thinking is right. Things are on the verge of getting very, very bad, and when they start to go south, I think that will happen quickly. But in all the noise of my fear, it’s easy to forget that I don’t just have experience suffering from trauma–I also have experience recovering from trauma, and building a life that I love and want to protect. If I want to show up for the long haul (which this is), I need to have the energy to keep going for it.

What that means for me today is that I’m trying to take one concrete action every day to beat back the darkness, and to take at least one action every day to remind myself I’m not alone. So I’ll write something, or give money, or have a hard conversation with a loved one, or make a political phone call. And I’ll make a list each morning of things I’m grateful for, in the here and now. Today it’s my in-laws, who have taken my daughter for touristy adventures so I could exercise and write.

All this energy in me feels like a fire, burning through the lies I’ve told myself over the years. I need to be cleaned out and renewed, not consumed by it.

 

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Waking into Darkness

When I was seventeen, I was sick with ulcerative colitis, but I never told anyone, not even when I went to the doctor because I was so sick that I started missing my period. I’d been shitting blood for over a year. I never got a direct question about it, so I was able to keep it cordoned away in my mind, sealed off from the rest of my life. Once, I was at a friend’s house and the toilet was broken, but I didn’t realize this until after I’d filled it with bloody diarrhea. I stayed in the room with my hand on the flusher, watching the water spiral and slowly, slowly dissipate for at least 15 minutes. My heart was beating too fast to think anything; I just knew I couldn’t leave that room until all the evidence was gone.

Like most other white people I know, the strongest feeling I had on Tuesday night into Wednesday morning was shock. How could this have happened? How could we all (even Trump himself) have been so wrong? But my teenaged experience of disease should have been my guide. The consequences of having an illness that deep were unthinkable to me at the time, and I didn’t have the emotional resources to deal with the possibility, so my mind just shut it down. Along the same lines, the truth of how the American experiment is predicated on human suffering was too much. I’ve spent much of my life and my career working on the presumption that if I listen compassionately to people in power, they’ll do the same for me. This election has exposed that strategy as misguided, and based in my own refusal to admit not just how endangered I am by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, but how implicated I am by and in it.

My grandfather on my mom’s side was head legal counsel for Southeastern Drilling Company in Texas. On my dad’s side I’m directly descended from the people who first brought the cotton trade–and thus slavery on a grand scale–to Texas. My life–my particular life, here in this condo in Arlington, MA–was made possible by human suffering and environmental pillage.

In the past, whenever I’ve tried to look at my heritage, it’s been hard to see it clearly. It’s like the weight of the past changes the laws of physics, and the light around these facts gets bendy and distorted. I become overwhelmed by guilt, unable to see my way through it. It’s too much dirt for just one person to undo, and it’s infected everything.

On Wednesday morning, the first person I saw was a former professor, Christina Sharpe, who’d just gotten the first copies of her new book, which focuses on the idea of the “wake”–both how history works like the wake of the slave ships of the Middle Passage and the process of coming to consciousness. She was so kind to me–hugged me while I wept, and responded with patient honesty when I keened of how I had been “so sure” it would go the other way.

“I wasn’t surprised,” she told me. “Other people underestimated white supremacy, but not me.” Listen to Nina Simone, Gil Scott-Heron, she told me. Don’t worry about whether speaking out will get put my name on a list–it probably will, but being ruled by fear doesn’t actually increase one’s chances for survival. This is the same fight which has been underway since this country started. Later that week, one of my Black students put it differently. “That feeling you’re having?” he said, “That’s how I feel all the time.”

I’ve been up since 3, gripped by fear. The first thing I did once I resigned myself to being awake was read my favorite pop culture website, figuring I’d give myself a break before approaching the news–but I’m not even safe there. Sharon Jones is dead. Adam Yauch Park in Brooklyn was defaced by swastikas and pro-Trump graffiti.This feels like end times, I can’t lie.

But it’s felt like end times for lots of people in this country for ages, that’s the thing I’m only realizing now. And maybe it is–Trump’s relationship with the EPA certainly doesn’t make me feel confident for the future of this little planet. But people have made art and raised kids and been kind and made meaning out of their lives even from the darkest points in history.

So here’s my pledge: I’m done lying. I’m done covering up the effects of abuse and violence in my personal life, and I’m done playing nice with systems of power–even, especially the ones that I benefit from.

So I’m telling the truth to my students–that I’m terrified, that I’m committed to social justice, that I want to help them find tools to speak truth to power. I’m being frank with my family about the small violences that made growing up queer so hard. I’m here, writing.

And I’m doing my best to divest from whiteness. We’re giving away more money than we ever have, by an order of magnitude. I’m keeping race central to discussions about the election with other white people. I’m using the phrase white supremacy with other white people–even ones in whom I’ve observed subtle racism in the past. I’m wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt and hanging an Unafraid Educator sign on my office door, because these are the signs that come from within the communities they’re meant to support (unlike safety pins, which white people came up with).

There’s so much work to be done. Too much, maybe. I can see the ways that hatred and fear shape human behavior–and Steve Bannon assures me that this isn’t going away anytime soon. But I’m done lying–my commitment (and that of other nice white people like me) to covering over uncomfortable truths is part of what got us into this mess.

My life has been shaped by violence, and this is something I never wanted to be true. The weight of it felt unbearable. But if I tell the truth, I think I can bear it. When I was finally willing to tell the truth about my illness, I nearly died. I had to have emergency surgery to have my colon removed, and my life changed permanently. But I didn’t die, and the only reason that’s true is because I faced up to what all that blood really meant, and dealt with the consequences as best I could. So no more lying.

Template for a letter to your family re: Steve Bannon

I did a thing this morning that I’ve never done before in my whole life–opened up a line of political dialogue with my socially conservative family. I saw the news about Bannon, and I am FUCKING TERRIFIED. The climate-change denying EPA guy Myron Ebell is awful, Ben Carson is the worst, Newt Gingrich is a human trash fire, etc etc. But Reagan and Bush made terrible appointments like this and we made it through that–we can still move forward with established grassroots strategies and try to stave off our own desctruction. But Steve Bannon is professionally hateful, and his energy is both contaigous and deeply dangerous.
So I’m calling my Senators and Representatives later today, and I composed the letter below to my family. I’m scared to have done it, but I have to do something. I put in bold the parts that only apply to me–replace them with instances from your own life. Or (even better) rewrite the whole thing in your own voice. I looked up all the contact info for the senators and reps for my family in the hope that this would make them actually take action–and I think it’s a good way to signal to them how serious I am. Feel free to cut and paste.
Hi family,

I’m writing with a political plea, which I normally wouldn’t do, but I’m really scared. In just the last week, I’ve already heard–from people I know personally–about moments of aggression and intimidation, even in deep blue places like Massachusetts and Maryland. At Winchester High School (the next town over from ours) on Thursday, a white student walked into the classroom of his Indian-American science teacher 20 minutes late with a “Make America Great Again” baseball hat on, wrapped in a flag, blaring music which he refused to turn off. A group of white male students from Babson College in Wellesley drove in a pickup truck to Wellesley College, where they verbally harassed a group of black students. At Ariel’s cousin’s son’s middle school in Bethesda, the bathroom was covered in swastika graffiti on Wednesday morning. And those aren’t even among the more than 300 hate crimes reported since Tuesday

As a gay mom with two young kids, I’m scared. As a woman, I’m scared. As a friend to Muslims and African Americans and immigrants, I’m scared.

I know that people are saying that we should give Trump a chance, and that sounds like a nice idea, but the moment (of many) that gives me the most pause is his appointment of Steve Bannon of Breitbart News to his cabinet. This guy has made a career out of hate-mongering, and if he is in a position of real power, the consequences would be dire. The next time something like the tragedy at San Bernadino happens, things will get very bad for a lot of innocent people in this country really quickly.

I’m willing to buckle down and try to work with or around economic and policy decisions I disagree with–as a person with a lot of opinions, I’m used to doing that. I’m hoping that I’m wrong about Trump, and that the promises of moderation he’s making now will pan out. But Bannon will bring out the very worst in Donald Trump, and in the country, and I will do whatever I can to try to stop his appointment.

I’m calling my representative and Senators to plea with them to do whatever they can to stop Bannon’s appointment. I’ve made a list below of contact information for your Representatives and Senators. I’ve actually never called my representative before–too afraid of conflict, I guess–but I’m motivated to action by what I’ve seen so far, and what I anticipate is down the line. Please, please call–especially those of you in states that went for Trump. ESPECIALLY those of you in Texas. Your representatives need to know that the vitriol which was so central to his campaign cannot be normalized in our culture. You can support Trump’s policies without co-signing open hatred. Tell them you’re voting, tell them you’ll remember next cycle–and especially tell them if you voted for Trump. Politicians are cynical, I know, and calling the office directly is actually a way to get them to pay attention. If you can convince your friends to do the same, even better.

Thanks for listening. I’m happy to talk about this more if you want. I’m sending you this letter because I love you and I know that you want what’s best for me and my family.

Lots of love,

Anne

Classic signs

I was at an AA dance one time, and a guy there got into a huge screaming match with his girlfriend, and pulled her out by her arm. The community intervened and separated them, restraining him and gathering, amoeba-like, around her, but the ugly truth of their relationship was now unavoidably clear to all of us. I don’t remember if the event ended right after that or not, but I went home deeply shaken. He’d seemed like a great guy–funny, handsome, warm–and I was flabbergasted by how mistaken my judgment had been.

He was at the meeting I went to the next morning, which was the biggest group in town, so pretty much everyone who had been at the party was there. At the end of the meeting, during the announcements, he stood up. “I just want to make an amends to the whole group,” he said. He’d had issues with anger his entire life, he explained, and he was working really hard to use the program to get past them, but things got out of control that night in a way he hadn’t expected, and he knew now that he needed to put renewed energy into his own personal process to try to deal with this.

I felt reassured–my initial ideas of him didn’t seem so off base now, and his contrition seemed real. We’re all trying to get better, I thought, and here’s an example of someone who’s really willing to do that work. When I told my best friend, she said “you watch, he’s going to fucking kill her someday.” Apologies are just part of the dance, and a public apology of that kind worked to ensure that he got back the trust of the larger community.

Ultimately, the woman in the couple left. Maybe he did change, but I doubt it. My dad changed, so anything is possible, but he only did so after my mom left and THEN after at least a decade of really hard internal work. Like I said yesterday, I believe people’s actions, and Trump’s appointment of Bannon is a much clearer declaration of his relationship to organized violence and misinformation than any contrite 60 minutes horseshit.

The worst part of all this, for me, is this nightmarish feeling like I’ve gone back in time. I’ve spent my whole adult life ensuring that I didn’t get pulled back into abusive relationships like the ones that shaped my childhood, but here I am again, subject to the will of an unpredictable abuser. And unlike my mom, I can’t leave. For fuck’s sake, even if we do all move to Canada, he’ll still be here with his finger on the button, belching coal into our atmosphere and arming racist cops with tanks and M-16s.

But here’s one difference: I’m done apologizing, and I’m done thinking there’s something wrong with me. I do think we got ourselves into this situation–as I did every time I actively pursued a guy who mistreated me, which I did many, many times. Even us nice white folks in Pantsuit Nation need to take a hard look at our own culpability here, and the way that our privilege blinded us to the reality of this threat. But abusers don’t come after me because I’m too fat, or because I’m weird, or because I’m a lesbian, or because I’m a woman. They come after me because they’re hateful, and there’s no way I change myself to keep that vitriol from coming my way.

What I can do is prepare. So I’m giving monthly donations to Planned Parenthood, 350.org, the ACLU, Lambda Legal Defense Fund, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, and I urge you to do the same. I’m taking a self-defense class at my work, and I’m running my ass off. I’m upping my meds–not because I think I’m crazy, but because I need to be able to sleep and I want to be present for my kids so that they’ll have the emotional resilience to make it through whatever the future holds.

Come at me. I’ve been waiting my whole life for this fight.

Trust

My mom will be the first to say that she’s not very smart about relationships, but she’s given me one piece of really good advice on that front, passed down from the minister she and my dad went to for marriage counseling when they were reconciling in my teens: Trust is earned. I want to believe the best of people, and I want to believe they have my best interests at heart. Often people rise to this belief, but when they don’t, the consequences can be really, really dire.

I haven’t been able to even look at the news in the last few days–I’m too hunkered down, and I just can’t bring myself to hear or read someone in power say “President-elect Trump.” I do hear, however, that there have been many calls for conciliation and cooperation with the new administration. I watched Clinton’s concession speech, and I admired her willingness to put her ego to the side. I’m trying to do something along these lines with Izzy–keep things as normal as possible for her, help her feel safe, help her believe that things will be okay, even though I’m sure in my heart that I’m lying to her. And this is what Obama’s and Clinton’s gestures felt like to me: the action of good parents, reassuring their children that they will make it through this famine, even though they probably won’t.

And there’s a selflessness that I appreciate and admire–putting the needs of others before your own is the definition of public service, right? But here’s the thing: Donald Trump is the first president in history who has never done a day of public service in his life. I see no information indicating he has ever seriously considered the experience of someone other than himself. The tone of his concession speech was magnanimous, and I know he’s dialing back on some of the crazier claims of his campaign, but I see nothing that makes me think he won’t move forward with them once he has the power. I’m looking, instead, to these rules for survival in an autocracy.

Because here’s the thing about trust: I had a series of experiences, all in a row, when I was in my early teens that should have made me see this coming. When my dad’s mistress sent a letter to our house, I picked up on what was happening, but I thought “that can’t possibly be true, you’re being ridiculous.” When I picked up on the leering vibe of the eighteen-year-old who would go on to grope me in my sleep the weekend before my thirteenth birthday, I thought “He seems nice, and he likes you!”  When I started to realize that my thirty-two-year-old neighbor was about to make out with me, I thought “get over yourself–you’re thirteen and he’s a grown man. Nothing is going to happen.” I’m done trusting that abusers will listen to their better selves.

And it’s funny–it’s this delusion (“he couldn’t possibly…”) that probably led many people to vote for Trump. Maybe that’s the difference between white supremacy and open bigotry. Open bigotry is easy to spot (and, sadly, certainly easier to spot these days): it’s hateful, grabbing at power and causing pain. But white supremacy is the conviction that power will undo itself unaided by work from below. White supremacy is trusting that a system which has only ever fucked everyone will suddenly become kind. That they didn’t really mean it. That they couldn’t possibly.

Here’s what I trust: I trust my community, who has shown up in ways both small and large each day for us. I trust my experience, which informs me that my fear is grounded in reality. I trust my resilience: I grew up surrounded by men like Trump, who knew they could say terrible things about women, POC, queers, and whomever else without consequence, men who took and took from the world. But I made it out, into an adult life where I’m no longer powerless. And people have been doing that forever: coming up out of pain and powerlessness into a new life. I may be in danger, but I’m not powerless anymore.

Write my way out

Ages ago, when I was stuck with my dissertation, I got a great piece of writing advice from a friend, and I still use it every time I sit down to write. Begin by making a list of five things you observe, one for each of your senses. It’s a great way to ground yourself before you get going, and I think that search for sensory detail makes me a better writer to boot.

What I noticed this morning was the smell of fear. I’ve had it upon awakening for two days now, and I fear that it will be my companion for much longer. The world looks different to me today, and the worst part is that I feel like I’m seeing more clearly than I was–and what I see is that things are much, much worse.

But I’m solution-oriented, if nothing else. And this whole process is as clear a reminder as I could get that my cozy suburban life is precarious at best, that I never stopped being seen as less than, both for the fact that I have a vagina and for what I do with it. So the upside (if you can call it that) is that solidarity is real right now, and I really, really felt it yesterday.

I also know that anti-racist solidarity is something I have to earn, that I haven’t yet. Because Trump is on us. White people overwhelmingly voted to elect Trump. Even nearly half of college-educated white women voted for him. I’m part of this group, and I’ve done the same thing of deprioritizing the concerns of POC because other concerns seemed more pressing. If this election has made anything clear to me, it’s that this is my struggle, and that we, the dispossessed, are all in this shit together.

Here’s what I’ve been telling my students, and what I’m trying to tell myself. Ages ago, when Izzy was having a lot of behavior problems, Ariel and I went to a child psychologist for advice on how to deal with it, and how to keep our own reactions from clouding our behavior with her. She told us to sit down and determine what the central values of our family were, in clear terms that Izzy could understand, and then bring the conversation back to those ideas when she was acting out. So if she hits Teddy, we say “you can’t hit your brother because he’s just a baby and he’s powerless. Our family protects people who are powerless–that’s part of who we are.” So here’s my set of family values (take that, Mike Pence):

Be kind. Help others. Say thanks. Protect the powerless. Share. Listen. Have fun. Make art.

I can do that no matter where I am. If the economy falls apart, if my family is no longer recognized by the state, if I’m threatened by violence–I can still find people to help, I can still share, I can still say thanks, I can still be kind, I can still stick up for those who have less power than I do, I can still connect with other people, I can still dance. And I can still write. So here goes.