Unknown photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This one is for all the rage-cryers out there. You know who you are. I’m one, too. I cry when I am furious, and it used to really piss me off. In class, in heated discussions in a college setting, at work. Someone would say something that enraged me (remember – rage is about powerlessness, so whenever there was a particular injustice or something that was misconstrued in an altogether unfair way, when I was belittled or mocked or dismissed …) and I would feel it start to well up and it was awful because I am a woman. It’s embarrassing. And more than that, it is one of those things that, as soon as the tears begin to flow, you know people will stop paying attention to what you’re saying and start reacting to the fact that you are “being emotional.”

If you identify with this, you are aware that there is literally nothing you can do to stop it once it starts. Even if you do your level best to continue to speak logically, you know there are people who are rolling their eyes at you and dismissing you simply because  you are crying.

But here’s the thing: focus on the “nothing you can do” part and know this (and share it widely because the more people know, the more we can destigmatize rage tears): Rage crying is a normal, physiological human response to increased levels of cortisol in our bodies. 

The main goal of our bodies is to maintain and/or restore homeostasis – that is, a middle ground, equilibrium. That is why, when we get too hot, our bodies trigger the mechanism that makes us sweat, so we cool off. When we are too cold, we shiver and get goosebumps so that we are prompted to raise our body temperature. When we have too much gas in our systems, our bodies have adapted to pass that gas – by burping or farting. Etc. Etc. Cortisol is a hormone that is produced by our adrenal glands in response to stress, and when we have too much of it, our bodies know that it needs to be offloaded somehow. Excess cortisol affects our immune response, increases levels of inflammation and can cause all sorts of physical ailments – so when there is too much, we have to get rid of it.

Wanna know one of the most efficient ways to offload cortisol?

Crying.

I shit you not.

Researchers have measured the amount of cortisol in tears when people are crying in different situations, and have shown that there are elevated levels of stress hormone in the tears of people who rage cry.

So basically, when you are frustrated with someone and feeling powerless and you start to sob, that is just your body’s way of achieving homeostasis – it’s like burping when you have too much gas in your belly or sweating when you’re too hot.

Sadly, we have been taught that crying in public is unacceptable, so many of us have learned to stifle this urge. Patriarchy has us teaching boys that it’s not really ok to cry at all, and prompts us to tell young women that in order to be ‘professional’ they need to compose themselves at work or they won’t be taken seriously. But this does nothing to relieve our bodies of the extra stress hormone it carries, and so when we force ourselves to stop crying, our bodies often turn to other means. So what else do humans do to relieve stress during these times? Men and boys have been socialized to externalize their stress – how many stories have you heard of a teenage boy punching a hole in a wall when he was upset? Turns out punching and kicking things also offloads cortisol (although not as efficiently as crying). Young women and girls internalize their stress for social and cultural reasons and one of the scariest things we know about how they try to achieve homeostasis is by self-harming – namely burning or cutting themselves. Cortisol levels drop measurably in people who engage in cutting behavior (and, yes, young men engage in self-harm as well, although not as often as young women do).

So the question we need to ask ourselves is whether we’d rather normalize angry tears from our fellow human beings as a normal, physiological response to stress or not. Can we recognize that this is a normal, adaptive thing that our bodies do and not force an alternative response that will ultimately end up being more harmful? Yes, it’s uncomfortable for us to witness another person crying, but the more we understand that it is literally something our bodies need to do in order to function better, the more we can accept it and move forward.

Tell your families, tell your co-workers, tell your kids. And the next time you feel that familiar lump in your throat and your hands clench into fists, let ‘er rip.

Like so many white folks, I first began hearing about this thing called “mutual aid” during the pandemic lockdown of 2020, when those of us who are lucky enough to be in positions of power and privilege became more and more aware of the fact that the systems and structures around us were failing folks at a rapid rate. Anyway, that might be a whole different post for another day. In the years since, I have witnessed the power of mutual aid to help people and bring communities together and I am, again, astonished at how it’s working today.

If you’re new to the concept, I highly recommend picking up the book Mutual Aid by Dean Spade. It’s a quick read and super powerful. Basically, Dean describes it this way,

Mutual aid is collective coordination to meet each other’s needs, usually from an awareness that the systems we have in place are not going to meet them. These systems, in fact, have often created the crisis, or are making things worse.

And if you can’t quite believe that the systems are making things worse, I’d encourage you to read this post I wrote in 2021, detailing the clusterfuck that was our small, local food bank or engage with the conversation around school loan forgiveness right now that details how some folks have already paid back the amount they owed PLUS more, and because of interest and the way the system is structured, they owe at least double that amount and will likely never be able to pay it off. The systems we created in the name of capitalism have made some folks (and our government) rich rich rich and have firmly placed others in poverty from which they will not be able to emerge in this lifetime. And mutual aid is, in many cases what is keeping those folks alive. That is not hyperbole. 

During the pandemic lockdown, if it weren’t for mutual aid, so many of the folks I knew would not have had food.

Read that again. And consider Dean Spade’s three key elements of mutual aid:

  1. Mutual aid projects must work to meet survival needs and build shared understanding about why people do not have what they need.
  2. Mutual aid projects mobilize people, expand solidarity, and build movements.
  3. Mutual aid projects are participatory, solving problems through collective action rather than waiting for saviors.

In my experience, mutual aid is about everyone doing something to contribute. It requires that we believe the folks who tell us what they need without asking for proof, without making them jump through hoops, without pointing them to “funding opportunities” or bureaucracies, since those are the places that have let them fall through the cracks (and, in some cases, literally pushed them through the cracks). It asks us to center the well-being of the community and to know that, in doing so, we are considering the health and well-being of each and every person in that community. It means that we acknowledge that we all have needs and gifts and we can live within a paradigm of ebb and flow, sharing those things with each other without a strict accounting or hierarchy.

I am friends with a young Black single mom who is in a tight spot right now, thanks to the systems and structures around her. The eviction moratorium kept her and her two young children housed during the pandemic lockdown and they have been doing well, until the moratorium ended and her landlord demanded nearly $9,000 in back rent. I don’t know about you, but not many people I know (especially single mothers who live in urban centers) have a spare $9K sitting around. She asked me for my help and, within hours of researching, I discovered that the rental assistance programs in her county and state are all closed to applications because they are so inundated with requests for help.

It could just be me, but it seems that a government who is experiencing a massive influx of requests for assistance should EXPAND their programs to help citizens rather than shutting down and telling folks they’re done helping because there are too many of them. I mean, if government was CREATED for the benefit of the people, then why are they denying those same people the assistance they require in order to LIVE?

But I digress. (Also, I’ll digress again and say that I discovered that applications for LANDLORD assistance are still open, which feels a little – fucked up). 

Anyway, it was clear to me that the “normal” avenues weren’t going to work in this case, so I decided to ask my networks for help.

So far, I have managed to raise about a third of what we need to keep this young family housed and it feels pretty damn good. There are a million reasons not to pitch in – you feel like your $25 won’t help “enough,” you wonder where the baby daddy is, you think there *must* be some other way that doesn’t require you to get involved, you don’t know her, you don’t live in Seattle, you haven’t ever been in this situation and you can’t imagine it, you think she should have expected this and saved money, etc. etc.

But there is one compelling reason for you to consider helping if you can.

We belong to each other.

Whether you like it or not. We all belong to each other. And when one of us is safe, we are all a little bit more safe. When one of us feels loved, there is more love for all of us.

I have been so excited and grateful for the folks who have pitched in to help my friend – people who don’t know her, who believe that she needs help and are willing to provide it. As the small donations pile up in my Venmo account, I smile and feel a warm glow in my heart. The more we take care of each other, the better off we all are.

If any of this resonates with you and you can help, please do, and know that this is how we begin to shift things for all of us. The more we act as if we believe we are interconnected, the more we will be. It’s a pretty sweet way to live.

(my Venmo is @Kari-ODriscoll – you’ll know it’s right by the photo of my tattoo that reads “Power Tools” with an image of a heart and a pen)

I am slowly evolving the work I’m doing with folks around metabolizing our grief and rage in community, and adding two cohorts (two 90-minute sessions each) for August. Just in case you’re like most people and you have no idea what I even mean by most of the things I wrote in that first sentence, here’s a little primer on what these workshops entail:

Grief and Rage are intertwined. Many of us start to feel grief and immediately bypass into rage because that’s a more comfortable place to be. But what if you could feel both, honor both, move through grief and acknowledge sadness and loss and get to a place where your rage fuels you to heal and move forward with intention? And what if you could do it in community?

In these two 90-minute sessions, you’ll learn about the nuances of grief and rage, begin to understand where they live in your body and how you, personally, respond to both of these powerful emotions with specific thought patterns and reactions.

You will learn ways to identify when you’re overwhelmed by either grief or rage, find practices that soothe your nervous system and allow you to process the emotions, and be with others who are doing this work and simultaneously holding space for everyone. Accompanying this information with body practices and specific steps and inquiries means that you have a framework for progressing through the emotions and stories instead of staying stuck in them and stuffing them down.

In September, I’ll be opening bi-weekly practice sessions for folks who have attended the workshops to come together and make their way through the steps, expand their idea of what it means to witness others and be witnessed in this work, and support each other to build a solid foundation.

I charge on a sliding scale, so please pay what you can between $50-$150. If you can’t pay, let me know and we’ll work something out.

If you’re interested, please email me at kari@kariodriscollwriter.com and let me know what day/time combos work best for you in August and get on the mailing list so I can get you signed up.

The older I get, the more anti-capitalist I get. Maybe this is what Gloria Steinem meant when she said women get more liberal as they age, or maybe it’s just a consequence of living in this time when all of the systems I was brought up to believe in as bedrock are crumbling beneath our feet. As I watch more people tumble into the cracks and see how institutions and governments just leave them lying there, it’s hard not to question everything.

When you can wake up to news of horrible acts that people in power perpetrate on other people – police officers and elected officials and entire countries – and still be expected to answer emails and create marketing materials and shop for new shoes as if none of it is shocking, it’s a little hard to swallow all of the things we were told would ensure us a good life, a solid life, a safe life.

Two days ago, I saw a meme that encouraged parents to “normalize asking high school kids what they want to do after school instead of asking them which college they want to go to.” I get it. Not all kids are college-bound, and pretending that they are can add a lot of pressure. But what if we stopped asking kids about their future plans at all? What if, instead, we asked them what they’re enjoying about their lives right nowWhat if we stopped pretending that there is some predictable set of systems out there for us to plan within and just encouraged kids (and frankly, everyone,) to look around and assess what is good in their lives in this minute that they can do more of?

I suppose it was this sentiment that was sitting in the back of my brain yesterday when I was on a weekly call with the Charter for Compassion and Citizen Discourse and the facilitator asked us to connect with our inner younger self and have a conversation with them about what they wanted us to be right now, or what they wanted to be when they hit the age we’re at currently. Most of the participants on the call went to that age-old question we all ask little kids, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” and my mind did, too, for a split second. But then, the anti-capitalist in me rebelled and my inner child spoke loudly:

Play. Make people food. Make them laugh.
Give lots of hugs. Help clean up when there’s a mess. 
Snuggle with animals. Grow plants and flowers. Sing.
Climb trees every once in a while just to see what things look like from up there.
Talk to people. Listen to kids. Try new things. Rest.
Lay in a hammock. Watch and see how things work when they’re left alone. 
Maybe it’s because I know myself well enough now to know that I would never have been the kind of person to have one career that spanned most of my adult life. Or maybe it’s because I realize that, at least in our culture, so much of our identity is built around the kind of paid work we do and that rubs me the wrong way. Perhaps it’s because for most of my adult life, the vast amount of labor I did was unpaid (mothering, caregiving, running a household) and it somehow meant I was less important, less valued by society. Or maybe it is because my aspirations for myself now revolve around the kind of person I want to be, the way I want to show up in the world, how I want other people to feel when they are with me. Whatever the reason, that list above feels like a pretty damn good way to focus my efforts.
I don’t honestly believe that any of us showed up on this planet to work, to have a career, to get paid to do labor. Somewhere along the way, we got lost in all of the rhetoric and expectations, the idea of money as a thing that was important enough to lose relationships over, lose time to, lose ourselves for. We began to believe that our purpose and our passion align with producing tangible things for other people to purchase instead of learning how to be in relationship with ourselves and others and the natural world. My reason for being has nothing to do with making money and everything to do with using my gifts to enrich and enhance the lives of myself and every living thing around me. My value does not lie in the amount of classes I can teach, the income I can generate, the number of books I sell. My value lies in my generosity of spirit, my willingness to keep learning, my curiosity, and my love for other human beings.
These systems we were taught to spend our lives toiling to uphold will not hold us up when we fall. They have shown that over and over again in the past two years. Unhooking from them and creating new ways of being can only free us to do the things we are truly meant to do together.

It is a bleak day, to be sure. The day that came at the end of a week where the Supreme Court of the United States, led by conservative justices, showed the citizens of this country how little they care for our health and safety and well-being. A week that saw dialysis patients being given over to the capitalist machinations of private insurers, states being told they cannot prevent citizens from carrying weapons basically wherever they want to, and the overturning of Roe v. Wade in a way that virtually confirms that our rights to privacy around contraception and sexuality will tumble to dust sooner rather than later.

It’s a bleak day. And I admit to laying on my couch staring at the ceiling for a full 40 minutes after posting posting posting to social media about the fuckery and nonsense that this is. My mind was numb because even though we all saw this coming, even though we wrote about it and marched and screamed and VOTED for folks like we were told to, it came anyway, and we were powerless to stop it. The Democrats have had multiple opportunities to make laws that would keep abortion safe and legal in this country and they’ve chosen not to prioritize it. They have had ample opportunity to enact gun laws that would actually protect the citizens of this country and they haven’t done it. It is enraging.

And, at some point, I was reminded that most of the crises I’ve found myself in throughout my life weren’t solved by coloring inside the lines. Laws are made up. Borders, too. You can try to legislate nature, but nature doesn’t really play that way. And, like it or not, human beings are part of nature. Abortion has been around as a practice since women needed it to be, which is basically forever. People have been having sex with each other forever, whether it resulted in babies or not. We might think we humans have cornered the market on imposing our will on things, but the fact is, we’ve been fooling ourselves.

I’m a little embarrassed that I fell into the trap of thinking that a group of people appointed by old, white men – many of whom are old white men themselves, and two of whom have been credibly accused of sexual assault against women – could actually make a decision that would prevent me from making some of the most important, fundamental decisions of my own. I do NOT have to live by these laws, and I’m not even talking about breaking them. I’m talking about a failure of imagination. If we accept the binary (as is our wont) that abortion is either legal or it isn’t in this country and that’s it (cue the brushing of the hands), we have failed to understand that the binary is artificial and was created by us. And if we created it, we can destroy it. Indeed, it is already crumbling.

These institutions we see falling apart day after day right in front of our eyes are the key to reminding us that we are trying to find solutions inside a box that we placed ourselves in and it is entirely possible to climb outside of that box and seek other ideas. Herbalists, healers, medicine women, curanderias – they have been the source of wisdom for generations and existed long before men like Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas showed up in their robes. Yes, there are ways to fight within the system, but there are also ways to take care of each other and ourselves that exist entirely outside of the systems we know are broken. Long before these laws were written, women took care of each other. We can imagine a new way that doesn’t put us at the mercy of these institutions that were never designed to benefit us. We need not always be on the defensive, begging for crumbs from the likes of Joe Manchin. We can craft new ways of being that prioritize our well being.

I am not saying that I know what those things are. I wish I did, but I do know that it is possible to imagine a world outside of the constraints we have placed on ourselves, and I also know that it is impossible to impose the laws of humans on nature. Lord knows, we’ve tried over and over again, but it will always be surface and unsustainable. What is sustainable is the human will to thrive and to be in loving community. Starting from there is where we’ll find our solutions.

All of that said, if you want something to do that feels tangible right now, go to www.abortionfunds.org and donate, support Planned Parenthood, visit nnaf.org/InvestInAbortionFunds, and call your local, state, and federal representatives to let them know you want abortion to stay safe and legal. But know that we cannot be forced to love certain people, ignore our bodies’ needs, and put ourselves in harm’s way by any man’s law. We will find ways to thrive. Together.

I have written and written and written about reproductive rights for twenty years or more. I’ve written op-eds, chapters in anthologies, essays for online outlets, and even an entire book that was never published. Over and over again, I’ve expressed my opinion as a woman and as a parent, hoping that my words weren’t just reaching folks who already agreed with me. And for a while, I stopped, because I feared that’s exactly what was happening. I don’t remember the last time I wrote about it until yesterday, but when I went to bed last night with such a heavy heart, the thing that came instantly to my mind was not abortion providers or women who need abortions and can’t get them (although I am outraged and fearful for them, no doubt). It was my children I thought of – the ones I gave birth to and the ones I love and nurture without any biological connection at all.

I know what it takes to raise children in this country. And my position and perspective is one of extreme privilege, so perhaps I ought to say that I know what it takes to raise children in this country as a white woman with money who was married to a white man, both of us college educated. I cannot ever know what it is to raise a child without financial security and a roof over my head and a partner. I cannot know what it is to raise a child as a person of color, someone who is not heterosexual or neurotypical or fully able-bodied. And so when I say that raising a child is hard, exhausting, overwhelming work, please imagine that for folks who didn’t have the resources I had, it is one hundred thousand times harder.

Raising a child in this country means being pressured by all of the people around you – professional and personal – to do things a certain way. It is a constant struggle to discern what is best – breast or bottle, pacifier or thumb, circumcision or not, vaccine schedules, preschool or daycare – if you have the luxury of choice, that is. It is 24 hours a day of tending to another human being one way or another – providing food and care and working to make sure they’re safe and learning. It is navigating systems that are not designed to support families – school systems, healthcare systems, and cities. It is often sacrificing your own well-being and health and rest in order to ensure that your child is healthy and happy. It is unequal work and it is uncompensated.

I could go on, given what I know about raising school-aged children and teenagers and supporting young adults, but I won’t. My point is this: parenting is an overwhelmingly exhausting and depleting lifetime job and it should be freely chosen. What if we lived in a world where each and every child was so loved and wanted that the task of parenting was embraced and supported by the extended community? What if every child was surrounded by a group of caring adults who had the resources and the ability to make them feel absolutely loved and safe?

That is what abortion offered me when I was 17. Because it was legal and I had access, I was able to make a decision to postpone having children until I was ready to provide them with a safe, loving home. When my first daughter was born, I was 29 and a full-throated YES to bringing her into the world. That isn’t to say that it wasn’t hard work, but I was married, financially secure, and emotionally ready to begin that journey. It changed everything about my life, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but I was ready, and that made all the difference. My second daughter came when I was 31 and, again, it was a full-throated YES.

Over the years, other kids came into my life who needed something they couldn’t get elsewhere – emotional support, a safe physical space to be, help with a challenging situation – and because I had solid footing, I was able to give them a full-throated YES, too. Every one of us deserves that – to know that we can rely on others to support us when we need it, but we can’t have that if we don’t get to choose when to have children. Parenting is so overwhelming that it subsumes everything. Not all the time, but enough that careers get derailed, bank accounts get depleted, marriages fall apart. Allowing people to choose when they bring a child into their life is a game-changer. One of the most basic psychological needs of a healthy human being is agency. Self-determination. The belief that we get to be in charge of some of the biggest things in our lives.

Reproductive rights aren’t political, they’re fundamental to healthy humanity, and what is fundamental to healthy humanity is fundamental for a healthy community. We cannot build strong, caring communities without a full-throated YES to each and every one of us.

What if every child knew that they were a full-throated YES?

jumble of Meyer lemons on a cooktop surface

 

January has been a long month. Seriously. I know I’m not the only one saying that, and that the last two years have honestly been such a time warp in general, but it is only the 22nd day of the month and I honestly feel as though I’ve lived several lifetimes this year so far.

Last Monday I woke up with a nagging headache. Not debilitating, but pretty uncomfortable. I’m no stranger to headaches in general, since I have a very finicky neck that doesn’t allow me to sleep in certain positions or do particular tasks that most people wouldn’t think twice about. Probably once a month, I end up with a pretty gnarly headache that requires a trip to my phenomenal chiropractor to fix (she shakes her head and says, “what have you done?” in a very gentle, caring manner that reminds me I am in good good hands and puts everything back where it is supposed to be and sends me on my way). So, honestly, that’s what I figured this was. I made my way through the day with Advil and the hope that it would resolve on its own.

But around midnight on Monday/Tuesday, I started to notice that I was thrashing about in bed quite a bit and that is really unusual for me. It only took a minute before I realized I was spiking a fever – this was chills, and the headache had kicked up a notch. I knew pretty much right away that this was Covid. I stuck it out until dawn and then took my temperature to confirm, texted a friend who I knew had access to home tests, and waited.

It was a rough four days. That headache was brutal. Not the worst one I’ve ever had, but definitely second in line. I couldn’t watch tv or read or really look at much of anything. I just laid on the couch staring into space and hoping it would abate sooner rather than later. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I remembered that when I first moved here last May, this was the scenario I feared most – that I’d get sick while living on my own and not be able to really take care of myself or the dogs. I’m here to say that, like most fears I’ve ever had in my life, this one didn’t play out the way my amygdala warned me it would.

I had friends near and far texting me all day long, checking in, offering help of any kind. The friend with the home tests also brought soup, Gatorade, bottles of water, cold medicine from her own stash, and Meyer lemons from her tree. Other new local friends offered food delivery, dog walks, and just general moral support. One of my neighbors, having spotted a friend dropping off supplies at the front door, texted one night to say her husband had just made a beautiful homemade dinner – could they fix me a plate and leave it at the door for me?

I was brought to tears with each and every one of these offers, and I accepted it all (well, not the dog-walking – my dogs would no more leave me behind at the house and go walk with someone else than they would chew their own leg off). Blissfully, the headache subsided by Day 3 and I remember lying on the couch, imagining my poor, stressed brain inside my skull, sending it waves of soothing light to recover. Every little thing I did prompted a two-hour nap. The last time I was this exhausted was after giving birth to Erin and that was only because I caught the flu while I was in the hospital so I brought her home and spent the first week battling a fever and trying to recover from a 40-hour labor.

I’m still recovering, but finally not sleeping 16-18 hours a day. I am able to do a few things here and there and then lie down for a bit to rest. There is some acute sense that if I don’t go slowly, there is a real danger of setting myself back, and I can’t help but wonder how people with children at home or elders to care for or lots of work to do that needs to be done manage this. It honestly brings me to tears to think about having to make a meal for someone else or go to a job feeling such extreme fatigue. I wish we lived in a world where we believed each other when we say we need rest, where we made sure to provide space and the necessities for that to happen. I recognize my massive privilege in this – that I was able to be cared for from afar by friends and family, that I am able to put off my work obligations as long as I need to, that I have a roof over my head and a soft bed in which to recuperate. I wish that for everyone.

It is so interesting that one of the first things people ask is “where did you get it” and then “were you vaccinated?” I am reminded that we have done a really good job of framing this pandemic in the same way we frame nearly everything in this culture – in terms of personal responsibility. I know that those two questions are some attempt to insulate ourselves – if we think we can crack the code, we can avoid getting sick. But I also know there is some judgment there because that’s what we’ve been taught. If you just didn’t do X, you wouldn’t be struggling with Y. I am so much more taken by the folks who ask “how can I support you” and “what do you need?” There is a radical form of community that can be created just by asking these simple questions and I am here to tell you, it feels amazing to be the recipient of it. On Thursday night, when I was so astonished by how absolutely tired a person could feel after sleeping most of the day, my phone pinged with an incoming email. As I read something from a friend expressing her deep care for me and her fervent wish that I recover quickly and thoroughly, I spent a few minutes going back through my day and replaying all of the text messages I’d gotten from a dozen or more friends and family members, checking in, offering help, saying they were sending love, and I made the conscious decision to hold that in my head and heart as the last thoughts before sleep – the notion that I was held in deep care and love by so many people from literally all over the planet. It was magic.

I’m now a week in and my sense of taste and smell is coming and going unpredictably, I struggle to catch my breath when walking the dogs on our normal, flat, 20-minute route through the neighborhood, and I still occasionally sit down after doing something  mundane like folding a load of laundry and feel a powerful need for a nap. My sleep is the sleep of the dead – deep, strange dreams and waking up feels like swimming up from the depths of the ocean, but I am grateful for the freedom to sleep when I need to and for friends and family who text or call or email to check in and let me know they’re rooting for me. That is medicine for my soul.

 

 

empty hammock suspended between trees with a field in the distance

 Jorge Polo, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Do you believe you are held in community?

I don’t mean to ask “do you think you belong?” That is a slightly different question. Belonging is often predicated on what we do, how we appear, the way we act.

I mean, do you believe that you are held in love and care by the collective?

Do you believe it, and by that I mean do you feel it in your bones, as a solid feeling in your gut?

Do you believe you are held? That regardless of your attributes or accomplishments or identities, you are woven tightly into the fabric of community, the people who surround you, who you consider beloveds, you will not fall away?

I recently celebrated my 50th birthday and I anticipated doing so alone. Not by choice, but also not not by choice. We are, after all, in a pandemic that is still swirling around us (whether we have the bandwidth to acknowledge it as such or not). But I have also uprooted myself and moved to an entirely new town in an entirely new state, my kids all live in different cities, and I am not a fan of parties where I am the object of the celebration. Whether that is simply a facet of my personality or my parents sparked that feeling by taking me to Farrell’s at the wrong developmental stage of my childhood is up for debate, but it does persist. I am not the kind of person who appreciates public acknowledgment of my birthday by singing waiters or birthday parties with more than five people or so. But I digress…

I fully anticipated spending the day alone and I was frankly unsure how I would feel, but then a series of things happened to change that. My youngest and her boyfriend texted to say they were driving up to spend the day with me and my heart broke open a little bit. A new friend I recently met texted to ask (randomly, she swears) when my birthday is and when I told her “two days from now,” she offered to take me out to dinner to celebrate. That crack widened a bit more. Then my aunt and uncle messaged to ask if they could take me out to lunch for my birthday and I cracked wide open.

On the day of my birthday, when I was as wide open as I’ve ever been, a really magical thing happened that still makes me cry when I think about it. A group of humans – most of whom I’ve never met in person, but who have vowed to have each others’ backs and support each other no matter what – began messaging me in the larger group to wish me a happy birthday. It began with one or two and within ninety minutes, there were close to 50 notifications in the group chat. I was overwhelmed and shaky at this outpouring of sincere, loving messages. The first thought that went through my mind was “why do they care about my birthday?” The second was “they’re only doing it because one person started it and it would be weird not to add their wishes to the chat.” The third came in the form of a question, “what if they do mean it? What if they are really taking a moment out of their own busy lives to sincerely think of me, hand on heart, and wish me well?”

That was the one that brought me to my knees. What if?

I texted a friend who I knew would get it to say how scary it was to accept these birthday wishes. I told her that I imagined all of the love coming at me from these amazing, complex, brilliant human beings was weaving an enormous hammock and all I had to do was climb in and be held by it. And also, there is no graceful way to get into a hammock. None. There is always that one moment when you wonder if someone is going to laugh at the awkward way you shove your butt over first and try not to get your foot tangled in the web of it. Or that other moment when you’re not quite sure if it will stay upright or flip and knock you out onto the dirt on your ass. My friend got it. She understood, and in that moment, we agreed that we would be each other’s spotter – that when one of us wanted to climb into that scary love hammock, the other one would stand by and hold it steady until they were safely inside, resting in love and care.

If you can’t answer the question, “Do you believe you are held in community?” you are not alone. I am 50 years old and just beginning to have the barest sensation of trusting it. I mourn for the last 49 years when I didn’t know that that was what I needed more than anything else, and also, I am determined to not let any more time pass by before I start asking other people whether they feel held.

We are killing ourselves and each other because we don’t feel held. We are addicted to drugs and food, buying weapons and physically and verbally attacking each other in public because we don’t feel held. We hide behind laws and cultural standards because we don’t know what it is to hold each other – in our hardest moments and our ugliest moments and our most triumphant moments. We haven’t learned what it feels like to believe we are held even when we aren’t producing, contributing, acting or looking a certain way. And the only way we will learn is to do it for each other, to take that leap of faith and hold each other in deep respect and care. When we feel like our well-being is something the collective cares about and for, we can rest in that space and come out ready to weave our strand of the hammock. It is terrifying, I know. And it is also the only thing that is left to do if we are going to make each other’s lives better.

So tell me, do you believe you are held in community?

speech bubble with a jumble of numbers inside

How do you measure the health of a community? I’ve said this before (actually over and over again for years now), and I’ll say it again: the fact that the media and the government insist on measuring the health of our country by the economic standards they arbitrarily set is ridiculous. Absurd. Irrelevant.

The daily or monthly reports on the stock market numbers, the numbers of jobs created, unemployment figures – all of these things are designed to create a picture of a country as a set of mathematical problems and people are not math problems. People are not even story problems. Communities are made of people who have needs that have nothing to do with the stock market and the number of hours of paid work they engage in. But for the folks who need data, who say that numbers are the way we understand what’s happening, let’s go on a little journey …

Imagine for a moment if the media started reporting the number of households who struggled with food insecurity in the last month and comparing it to the month before that and the month before that.

What if, instead of “jobs created,” they told us the number of folks who lost their housing in the last quarter? Or the number of persons who remain unhoused and for how long they’ve struggled with that?

Somewhere, there have to be figures that enumerate the scores of families and individuals who have unpaid medical debt and charts that show how much that debt has grown over the years and how it has impacted the other two measures of food insecurity and houselessness.

What if the media routinely talked about those numbers, over and over again, throughout the evening newscast, at the top of the hour on NPR, and in print for folks to see? Would it move politicians to address those issues more quickly and with more urgency? Because what politicians talk about now are jobs and the stock market, and these are things that don’t translate into healthy communities. We have seen for years that a rising stock market does not mean that everyone in this country is doing okay. There are scores of people in this country who do not have money invested in the stock market, who don’t have any disposable income to invest. We know that unemployment figures don’t show the kind of information we pretend they do. People are “underemployed” for a variety of reasons, and some folks don’t even show on unemployment figures because they’ve given up looking for work – either because they can’t afford to work (yes, it’s absurd that that is a reality, but it is), they don’t have the skills employers are seeking, they’re discriminated against, or they are not able to work for a variety of reasons.

Instead of talking about “the economy,” what if we talked about people and how their basic needs are increasingly not being met? Instead of doing a “homeless count” once a year in major cities, what if we looked at the reasons people lose housing and report on those numbers every single week?

Our priorities are reflected in the kind of information we choose to seek and compile and report. And the vicious cycle that is created here is that we continue to believe that these *should* be our priorities, so we focus on them to the exclusion of the things that might actually tell us about the health of our country. It’s not a panacea, but shifting the way we talk about and measure the health of our communities might give us more of a reason to start working on ensuring that more of us are supported and stable.

I’d like to think that maybe if the media were constantly reporting on the number of people in this country who have declared bankruptcy or lost their housing or carried crippling debt from medical bills, we might find enough politicians who were willing to overhaul the system in the face of insurance company lobbyists.

Perhaps if there were an accurate picture of the number of households with members who are consistently underfed, there would be political will to change the way we support folks with SNAP benefits.

What we focus on grows. We need to start focusing on people and their struggles to survive and the things we can do to help them, help humans, not “the economy.” There is no such thing as trickle-down, except in the realm of fairy tales and rain water.

For the last six months or so, I’ve watched with increasing discomfort as social media posts telling people to get vaccinated against Covid and vilifying people who are choosing not to vaccinate fill my feed. Some of them are brief and to the point “Wear your damn mask and get your shot!” and others are full-on rants about ignorant people or angry missives that are full of sarcasm and othering language. There are folks who post polls asking their followers and contacts whether or not they’ve been vaccinated and links to videos mocking the people who choose not to, and so far, I’ve mostly resisted commenting on any of them or posting anything I think might come off as me joining the fray. Frankly, it has meant that my social media use is vastly curtailed (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – just sayin’…)

I have remained curious about my level of discomfort, trying to tease out where it hits me and why. While it’s easy for me to agree with the observations that part of our downfall is our lack of collective consciousness, it has still been difficult to reconcile the nastiness and othering that comes with “yelling” at people to get vaccinated for “the greater good.”

This morning as I walked on the beach, part of the puzzle seemed to come together in my head, thanks to a text exchange I had with a dear friend about the horrific scenes unfolding in Afghanistan.

She texted that she feels overwhelmed with all of the crises in the world and yet she also believes that it isn’t ok to “look away.” It is so hard to know what we can do to help the people who are suffering right now in ways we can’t even imagine. I talked to her about a group I’m involved with who has spent the last seven days lighting candles, raising money, and holding vigil for an Afghani couple who is trying to flee the country. Within that group, as things got worse and worse, we had the conversation about whether what we were doing was enough. Helping one family versus an entire nation. Given that, last night, that one couple managed to get on a plane to safety, it seems that we are helping, even in some small way. But, it turns out, that isn’t even really the point, and this is where the puzzle pieces began to fall into place.

What we have done in the last seven days is build community. We have forged relationships – not only among ourselves (a group of people that are scattered across the Western world), but with this Afghani couple and their family members. We have created a space where we come together in solidarity to try and alleviate some suffering. We have helped each other when it became hard to hold that space because it triggered our own trauma and fear and, it turns out, we gave this couple hope as they sat in a hot, jam-packed airport with gunfire and violence playing out outside, not knowing whether they would manage to get on a plane or be sent back to their homes.

It is a very Western, white-people thing to want to find The Solution. To invoke power structures to identify The Problem, create Rules and Mandates, and use power to impose them to Fix It. And while this is somewhat effective, what it doesn’t do is create community. There will never be a set of mandates that will convince us that we belong to each other.

It is a very Western, white-people thing to want to find The Solution. To invoke power structures to identify The Problem, create Rules and Mandates, and use power to impose them to Fix It. And while this is somewhat effective, what it doesn’t do is create community. There will never be a set of mandates that will convince us that we belong to each other. There will never be laws or rules that teach us that we are safe with each other and that we matter to someone else. Those things don’t build relationship and they don’t cultivate safety in the way that human beings need to feel safe. We white folks like rules and power because it makes us feel safe, but that is an illusion. When we think we are in control of a situation, we tend to relax a bit, but only a bit, because there is always the chance that someone with more power will come along and knock us off kilter and take control.

When we build relationship, by truly creating spaces where we feel safe with one another, we create community and a sense of shared well-being. That is why the physicians who take the time to listen to each individual concern about vaccine risks and acknowledge the fears of their patients can often have an impact on their choices. Playing on someone’s fears can be an effective way to change their behavior short-term, but you risk another, bigger fear coming along to usurp that one you cultivated. And even if you can change someone’s behavior, you can’t change their values by scaring them or forcing them to do something they don’t want to do.

We all want to belong, to feel safe with others, and to be part of something bigger than ourselves, but you can’t mandate that. Focusing on enforcement rather than relationship is where we white Westerners have gone wrong for hundreds of years. The social media posts that mock or shame other people destroy the potential for connection, even as they rack up ‘likes’ from people who agree with them. Those likes can make you feel righteous, but they aren’t going to convince anyone to care about the collective. Caring about the collective comes from feeling as though you are an integral part of it, and that comes through kindness and curiosity and trust-building.