Image Description: tent encampment in the plaza of a Federal Building

 

Nearly once a week a “discussion” erupts on my local NextDoor site in regards to homelessness (or, more accurately homeless people) in Seattle. My neighborhood is a mix of upper-income, middle-aged white folks in single family homes and younger, mostly white folks in townhomes that are rapidly gentrifying the area, with some families who’ve been here for generations thrown in. Mostly, those folks who have lived in this area for a long time are people of color, as this is the neighborhood where, historically, Black people were redlined to. (Yes, I am one of the gentrifiers, and that is something I grapple with quite a bit).

It happens like this: someone posts an angry or disgusted rant about homelessness or tent-camping in public parks getting “out of control,” the same five or six people chime in with questions about where these folks ought to be living instead, given the lack of housing and shelters in the city, and fifteen or twenty others clap back with comments about crime or garbage or needles and encourage the “libtards” to open their own homes to “these people.” It devolves from there, and it only ends because people get tired of having the same back-and-forth. At some point, another person will post something similar about a different area of town or an encounter they had with an unhoused person and it starts all over again. 

In other cases, I have read stories of people really struggling with basic needs on social media, written by friends and acquaintances in an effort to highlight the challenges so many families are having, and read comments by folks who accuse them of fabricating these stories just to create division. Other commenters pile on, asking if the original poster did anything to help or were they just co-opting the story to make themselves look good.

Why do we do that? Why do we deflect and make these experiences about things they aren’t about? Instead of talking about the overwhelming numbers of people who are unhoused, we argue about “hygiene” or “cleanliness” or property values of homeowners living nearby. Instead of sitting with the knowledge that there are so many among us who can’t afford food or medication or are one disaster away from being unhoused themselves, we fight with each other about the veracity of these stories or yell at folks for not doing something Right Now. 

Discomfort. I think that’s what it comes down to – who is able to sit with discomfort and who isn’t. It is incredibly painful to witness another human being suffering or struggling, and when it shows up in our own neighborhood, we can’t simply turn off the television or walk away. If you live across the street from a place where people have erected tents and are living without running water or enough food, it’s hard to shut it out. It takes courage to be a witness to suffering and to really acknowledge that the folks who are struggling are human beings who deserve care and comfort. 

The city of Seattle created something they call “Find it, Fix it” for citizens to report issues that the city needs to address. It was designed to address infrastructure problems like potholes or stop signs that fell over or are obstructed by trees, but increasingly, it is being used by citizens who don’t like homeless people living in their neighborhoods. A few days ago, another resident of my neighborhood posted on NextDoor, imploring folks to flood the Find it, Fix it voice mail with concerns about a tent encampment in our area that just keeps growing. When I pointed out that tent camps are populated by people, not “it,” I was predictably met with the same arguments – the garbage, the needles (minus any evidence that there actually is any drug activity happening), the loud arguments coming from that area at night. One commenter wrote about loud arguments he heard coming from the tents at night, saying they frightened him because he was sure violence was imminent. But, I asked, if you were sitting out on your back deck relaxing and you heard your (housed) neighbors having a loud argument, would you feel unsafe? If not, is that because they are housed? Are you only frightened by people having public arguments who don’t have the privilege of being in a home they rent or own? 

It is uncomfortable to admit that there are people who don’t have enough. It is more uncomfortable to witness it. The whole NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) paradigm isn’t about solving the problems our cities face, it is about making sure we don’t have to see it. The assertions about property values and cleanliness are thinly veiled attempts to say that some people are more deserving of comfort and care than others are. When we blame unhoused people for being unhoused, we are more able to see them as people not worthy of the same comforts we have. When we begin to believe that they are somehow fundamentally different from us, we are more likely to be afraid of them and imagine them to be unpredictable or somehow dangerous. When we blame poor people for being poor, we are divorcing ourselves from any responsibility to them as humans, as members of a community. We are assuming that their actions, their choices, have rendered them outside of the collective we belong to, and diminishing the reality that their basic needs are not being met and they are suffering. 

But when we choose to witness the suffering of another as an equal human being, as a member of our community, we have to be able to sit with all the fear and sadness that brings up. My friend Nicci said the other day, “being a witness to suffering is much different than suffering with suffering.” Until we have practice acknowledging that someone is struggling and holding compassion for that without deflecting, we are simply suffering, whether we realize it or not. Sometimes we turn that suffering in to anger and resentment toward those people, and sometimes we try to deflect that in to action, to try and “fix” it. Our brains are so good at finding ways to keep us from feeling that it takes practice, and vigilance to learn to be a witness and sit with the discomfort. That doesn’t mean we can’t act, but the more we learn to be compassionate witnesses, the more likely we are to center the individual people in our search for solutions. This isn’t deflection, it’s transformation, it’s metabolizing our empathy and compassion to find ways to act that serve those who are suffering. 

It’s the deflection that seeks to push the pain out of our visual range that is harmful, because it denies the humanity of others and our connection to community. We don’t get to be selective about the communities we belong to, no matter how hard we try. The fact is, we are all connected whether we like it or not. That is being shown every single day in a myriad of ways. I see posts from people about their struggles with family members who hold completely different political views than their own, anecdotes about others who were surprised to find that someone they wouldn’t normally choose to associate with was able to help them in some way, people who have to rely on others for assistance. We are all part of a community, like it or not. 

I truly believe that most of the people who get indignant about homelessness and poverty are people who, if they really let themselves acknowledge what they’re feeling, are empathic. I think that the coping  mechanism they’ve developed to deal with the (very real) discomfort of witnessing suffering is anger and blame and if they allowed themselves to put that aside and really feel what they feel when they see a person who is unhoused or needs help with basic necessities, they might begin to feel more connected, and more empowered. I think that the instinct to share our views and feelings on social media is an attempt to build community, to ask others to validate our feelings and be witnesses for us, but ironically, it almost always devolves in to an argument about those who are suffering rather than an invitation to really witness what they are living with. 

 

My uncle said something last night that struck me and it fits in with so much of what I’ve been chewing on mentally. He said, “we aren’t a society, we are an economy. We aren’t citizens, we’re workers.” He said it ironically, as he and two of his sisters and I were railing at what passes for health care in the United States – at how we commoditized it and made it a business instead of a way to meet the basic needs of human beings in our communities. 

And then this morning, Nicci sent me a Marco Polo (seriously, folks, I’m addicted to this platform and the way we can record videos for just one other person and instead of a dynamic, ongoing conversation, we have to really listen to the other person in earnest, hear their thoughts and ideas, and sit with them before formulating a response) that, among other things, made me think about my parents’ generation and how they were taught (indoctrinated?) to believe that they had to be in service to something bigger, and how that was noble, and desirable, and that martyring one’s self to that larger thing (Capitalism and “Democracy”) was not only expected but lauded. 

But, hear me out: a collective, a community, is only as healthy as its individual parts, and my parents were taught that they ought to eschew their own health and well-being in order to be of service to something else. And if they did a good enough job, they’d get a pat on the head and a pension and Capitalism and Democracy would live on through their efforts. And so my dad went to Vietnam and fought for “Democracy” and came home broken broken broken. And my mom quit teaching and stayed home to raise  children and held on to her marriage with this broken broken broken man in service to her religion, her society (raising “good” children and all that), her country (as if). I know for a fact they both had dreams and passions and I also know that they sublimated those things out of a sense of duty. I know that they weren’t able to ask the question, “What would make me happy?” From time to time, when either of them was particularly tortured and unhappy, they were able to ask, “what would make this suffering stop?” – but  they never saw their own well-being as something that would serve the collective. 

I once heard Gloria Steinem say “if you want to have something at the end of your journey, you have to have it all along the way.” She went on to explain that if we’re looking for joy or a sense of purpose, we have to have experienced it as we go, or else we’ll never be able to recognize it or appreciate it once we get “there,” wherever “there” is (for the record, I don’t think there is a “there” there). But at least one entire generation of people were taught (indoctrinated?) that what they wanted in the moment wasn’t important. They could plan for retirement, to have “joy” and an opportunity to relax and indulge your passions and interests at that point, but until that time, you had to be of service

But a healthy collective is made up of healthy individuals. A peaceful collective is made up of peaceful individuals. The thing we are working for has to also benefit us in some tangible, meaningful way. I’m sure my parents both believed that Capitalism and Democracy would benefit them, but only inasmuch as it prevented other horrible things from affecting them – things like Communism and Socialism, lawlessness and anarchy and amorality. But I can tell you that, while my parents lived fairly comfortable, middle-class lives and they remained safe from whatever demons were out there, for the most part, neither of them got to enjoy their retirement. My dad died at 65 from an aggressive form of cancer (brought on by, you guessed it – his time in Vietnam) and my mom was forced into retirement by Alzheimer’s. Neither of them got the chance to travel or pursue a passion or reap the benefits of their efforts on behalf of That Larger Thing. 

So what if we flip this on its head? What if we teach a new generation of young people that grounding themselves in who they are, what they want, where their natural talents lie, and serving that is serving the collective? What if we teach them that, the stronger and more peaceful and purposeful they are, the more they are able to connect to others with clarity and compassion? And that those connections are what actually serve the collective? What if we don’t place the emphasis on some external thing that needs them to be/act/work a certain way, but instead look at what they need in order to act from a place of security and abundance? What if we make sure that they have what they need (food, shelter, access to the education they choose, health care, a supportive community and family) and know know know that this is what the foundation of our strong collective resides on? 

The kind of service my parents’ generation was built on required more individuals to constantly replenish the ones that burned out. It was this hollow shell of Capitalism and Democracy with worker bees propping it up and it ran on volume so that when some of the bees got sick, others could rush in and replace them. But building our communities from the inside out, ensuring that each individual who is part of it is healthy and has what they need, means that we have a solid core from which to draw our collective well-being. While I spent most of my life saying I wanted to be “of service” and believing that that was an incredibly noble thing, I now think it is important for us to examine exactly what it is we think we’re “in service” to. If what we really want to be is part of a community of care that honors all of us, then our work lies in making sure we are clear on our purpose and passion, that we are able to ask for what we need when we need it and offer our support to those whose needs can be met by us. Taking care of ourselves and being able to recognize our talents and gifts as well as knowing what joy looks and feels like along the way is how we serve the collective. 

 

I deleted Facebook from my phone two weeks ago and my nervous system is thanking me for it. I also decided to only go check the site once a day from my computer, in the morning, to make my way through the notifications, see what my friends and groups are up to, and maybe post a link to something I wrote, before logging off and leaving it for the next day. 

Since my divorce two years ago, I’ve felt lonely. (Actually, I was lonely long before then, but that’s not worth getting in to right now). Increasingly, I used Facebook as a way to connect with other people, to the point where I found myself checking it dozens of times a day. If I posted something and nobody commented or responded, I was frustrated, and conversely, when someone remarked on a post of mine or responded to a comment I left, I was elated. I felt that dopamine surge with glee. 

I will admit to some fear of letting go of Facebook. In the last several years, I’ve secured writing work almost exclusively from groups I belong to, and I am honestly worried that I will miss seeing opportunities if I don’t check the site more than once a day for five minutes. But I’d be lying if I said I feel good about supporting the platform itself and all that it stands for – capitalism, exploitation, curated news feeds, manipulation. 

Today, in a conversation with a friend, I was finally able to articulate what it is that I’m discovering about Facebook and, to be honest, other social media platforms as well. They are transactional, but they masquerade as relational. And my work, my passion, centers on the power of relationship and how transformational it is if we really engage in it with intentionality. 

To be sure, I am able to use social media as a way to  keep up with my cousins who live two states away – seeing photos of their kids and hearing about the things happening in their lives. I am kept informed of important events in the lives of friends who live far away and able to celebrate those things with a group of other friends online. But that’s not relationship. 

When I post something on Facebook, it is the equivalent of me standing on a stage with a bullhorn, proclaiming my opinion or telling folks about some idea I have. While, in general, they are free to comment, I don’t have to choose to engage with them, and often the comments aren’t inviting that kind of exchange – they are simply an acknowledgment. That’s not relationship. That’s a transaction. 

I have created relationship with folks I met online, but the connection was made offline – either in person or via email or FaceTime or, increasingly, Marco Polo. And in relationship, we are able to learn about and from each other, engage in conversations that are deep and also sometimes superficial and goofy. The communication is not performative in any way because there isn’t an audience and I think that’s important. I can talk to people about racism or what it means to struggle with trauma without voyeurs, and in relationship, I can make mistakes. I can say something and have the other person take a step back and let me know that maybe what I said was insensitive or even inappropriate and, without all of the rest of my Facebook friends looking on, I can take that information in and use it to learn. 

I do believe, and have for a long time, that the way we will make this world a better place is through relationship. It is not by “fixing” systems or forcing outcomes, but by engaging in conversations with each other on a very human level where we are allowed to be imperfect, grow, make mistakes, and hold each other accountable. It will take time and a willingness to be present, to pay attention, to suspend judgment, and to show up in our local communities. It involves us taking a leap of faith to connect with other people and let them decide whether or not to invite us in to relationship, or to invite others in to relationship with us. It is the stuff of every day life – seeing someone struggle to carry all of their things and offering to help shoulder the load, volunteering at a neighborhood organization for no other reason than there is a need to be met and we have the resources to help meet it, striking up a conversation with the neighbor while we are both out sweeping the walk. When we strengthen those connections with other people, we begin to see them as part of our community, and when we center those relationships in our lives in a way that feels foundational, it is harder to see other people as stepping stones to our own personal success. 

The post I wrote in April about systems centering themselves is part of this idea. When we center relationship, there is no way we can choose to disadvantage individual people in order to serve the “greater good.” Because the greater good relies on all of us being ok, and we are not ok. There are too many of us who don’t have shelter, or enough to eat. There are too many of us who are not safe, either in our own homes or out on the streets. And when we can create communities of care that are rooted in relationships, real, authentic, dynamic relationships where people have affection for each other, support one another physically and spiritually and emotionally, and see each other as vital to our own well-being, we will be on our way to inviting new systems to be born – systems that are grounded in the mutual exchange of ideas and love rather than transactions that serve some but not all. 

I am really struggling today.
And, it’s not about me.
But also, it is. There is a way in which I have to fit in to the community, be in relationship with others, and help push solutions forward.
Even saying the word “solutions” feels weird. As if there is a set of (elusive) criteria or steps out there to take that will make all of this turmoil and pain better once and for all. 
Bullshit.
I watch conversations ebb and flow online with interest. There are white women I know who are really digging in and learning; reading and talking with one another and exploring ideas they’ve never explored before. I heard a story the other night about a white woman at a protest who asked a Black woman what she should say to “get it Right.” 
I understand the desire, the question, and I also know somewhere deep down in my bones that this isn’t about “getting it Right.” There is no “it” and there is no “Right.” This isn’t some box we can check – yup, read these seven books, had these important discussions, watched this documentary, I get it now. 
Not that it’s not important to read and talk and watch the documentaries – it is. It is part of our unlearning, our acknowledgment that the education we received was whitewashed and carefully curated to present a particular viewpoint and make us all feel good about the trajectory of “history.”
But I think what it comes down to – what it always comes down to – is relationship. Doing your own work is vital, but not in the context of becoming woke or enlightened or saying you “get it.” It’s important so that you can show up and be better in community, be in relationships that are honest and evolutionary. Going to anger management courses as someone who is abusive to others isn’t useful as a philosophical exercise. You have to embed the learning in to your bones, commit to using it as a way to build connections and practice new ways of being in relationship. It isn’t enough to say you showed up and learned the things. You have to be willing to imagine a new way of being, and that requires shedding the old way, practicing over and over again until the new ways become more natural than the old ones, and doing it in the context of relationship. 
The consent decrees and DEI training and de-escalation trainings police officers adhere to aren’t meaningful unless on some human level they are changed and they show up in a different way. And that’s hard to do because relationships suffer under power differentials. Community isn’t built, doesn’t thrive when all parties aren’t accountable to the same set of principles. When the goal is power, the end result can never be a healthy relationship. And we have raised generations and generations of men to believe that what makes them men is the fact that they reside in power. All of the things we teach boys about being men are really about maintaining power – not showing emotions that seem vulnerable, not admitting to mistakes or being unsure of answers, the importance of being a “provider” … We even teach women and girls that the way to be treated better is to be more like men, to “Lean In”. Power destroys relationship. But when you’ve been taught that power is the thing you’re supposed to be seeking, that you deserve to possess, the notion that you might have to relinquish it in order to be part of a healthy community is a tough pill to swallow. This is why some (mostly men) in authority try to twist it to say that that healthy communities include power dynamics – someone has to be “in charge.” But that is a lie. When we set up systems where only certain people or groups get to have agency and they aren’t held accountable in relationship to those they wield power over, that isn’t being in charge. That is holding up supremacy. 
Watching what is happening in Portland is a powerful reminder that the desire for power is so much a part of who we are that it is destroying us. Not only are there armed militia men without identification grabbing citizens off the streets and detaining them without Miranda rights, or pressing charges, or due process of any kind, but the discussion online about who should be front and center in the protests, whose voices should be heard, who deserves to be featured in the stories is about power, too. 
Folks maintain power through fear and I’m sad to say I’m scared right now. I am scared that there are so many willing soldiers in Trump’s army that will show up, rescind their humanity, and brutalize and scare peaceful protestors with impunity. I am sad that our government is willing to spend vast sums of money on “crowd control” tactics that are classified as war crimes by the UN but not spend our resources to supply our hospitals with the things they need to keep people alive in a pandemic, give money to families to buy food and pay rent. 
I tend to be an optimist, and today I’m finding it hard to be optimistic. Being in relationship with one another is the one thing that keeps us alive and thriving, and we are destroying relationships every day. 
It’s not about being a “good person” and doing your own work. (I almost wrote “it’s not enough to be a ‘good person’ and do your own work” but I checked myself because that makes it sound like there is some “enough”. DAMN! Even our language is tailored toward the idea that there is some binary Right/Wrong, Enough/Not Enough.) We have to act and exist within relationships that are dynamic and evolutionary and messy. We have to learn better and then DO better, not by checking some box or posting something online, but by engaging, by talking to people and listening to them and really doing the messy interactive stuff of relationship. I wrote last time about boundaries and how I think we can use them as tools to further relationship, deepen accountability, and become more connected to other people. I’m really beginning to think that is the goal and the thing that will make all our lives better – a willingness to overcome our fear of fucking up, an acknowledgment that community is worth the uncertainty and messiness of really connecting with others, and a complete dismantling of the idea that there is some end goal that we all need to aspire to. It is so damn tempting to think that The Answer is out there and we just need to find it, check all the boxes and find all the little fruits along the way until we get “there.” But there is no there there. There is only right now, and the choice of whether or not to do the next thing that will strengthen our connections with those around us. Showing up to learn and have conversations and center the well-being of those connections is what will move us in to a place where we begin to feel as though we are all important. 
I listened to an interview with Resmaa Menakem yesterday and he implored us to talk to each other, build a culture of care, of learning, of acknowledging the trauma we carry and that we are inflicting on each other, and passing on to our children. I cringed when he said he thinks it will take a concerted effort to do this for “seven to ten years” before things will change significantly. But if we don’t start now, we are only continuing to do harm. If there is such a thing as “getting it right” that is where it starts: putting in the effort to learn and listen, showing up willing to make mistakes and relinquish power or authority, being in the chaos and mess of interacting with others for real, and doing it all from a place of love, grounded in the sincere belief that community is created when everyone is honored, respected, and cared for. 
I’m in. Are you? 

You know that phenomenon when you notice a pattern somewhere and you can’t believe you hadn’t seen it before, and suddenly you start seeing it everywhere? It’s even more eye-opening when there was something you thought was a little ‘off,’ but you couldn’t quite figure it out and then, once you do, you realize it’s a cancer. Hindsight and all that.

I volunteered to be part of a task force for my local school district in 2018. Our job was to dig deeply in to the “highly capable” program and come up with ways to make it less elite (less white, less geared toward rich families, less racist). We spent months looking at data, examining the history of the program, the laws surrounding it, the myriad ways the district had tried to identify and serve kids with extraordinary academic prowess over the years, and how other districts were doing it. It was no secret that our system was deeply flawed from beginning to end.

We weren’t the first group of folks to ever attempt this here. Indeed, there had been a similar task force just a few years earlier that had done the same thing – volunteering hundreds of hours of their time to come up with recommendations they put forth to the district, many of which got a head nod and a sad, “we wish that were possible” before retiring to the packet of information to be passed along to the next task force – us.

We were a fairly diverse group of parents, educators, and community members – cutting across racial and ethnic lines, but not really across socioeconomic ones. I mean, if you have to be able to offer your labor for free for 18 months and show up at prescribed times in a central location, it’s not exactly feasible for many folks, is it? But we did our best to try and bring voices in to the room that may not have been represented.

I think it was around month 12 that I finally figured it out. And now I can’t unsee it. And I also can’t not notice it everywhere I look.

We were never going to be able to make radical, substantive change to this system because no matter what we did, the system had a way of continuing to center itself.

Supposedly, the public school system was created to benefit kids and society (well, mostly society if we’re being honest). Over time, we started thinking that the benefit to kids would work itself out if we just threw a little money and a bunch of rules at it. We kept adding layers and layers of bureaucracy (standardized testing, mandatory minimum days/hours of instruction, core class requirements, etc. etc.) without ever looking at the impact it truly had on society or the kids. And even if we recognized that some of those things were detrimental or not really serving the kids, the system had invested so much time and money in to setting up the scaffolding for those things, we weren’t about to abandon them. When we went in to that task force work, it was with the goal of increasing equity, but that has to do with the kids, what’s good for them, and the system kept saying, “how can we do that?” or “how can we pay for that?”

It’s the same with our “health care” system. We don’t center the patient – we center the system. Asking how we can afford it, or wringing our hands as we think about the logistics of dismantling the private insurance system and the administrative bureaucracy fed by it is centering the system. The system has taken over and become our driving, bedrock force in every decision. We consider the needs of the individuals only within the context of the system’s needs being met, not the other way around. We bend over backwards to try and find solutions (add layers of bureaucracy) to protect the system. That’s why Joe Biden wants to have a private insurance option and just expand Obamacare. Not for the good of the collective, the good of the individual human beings, but so we don’t disrupt the system.

That is why women and people of color and folks with disabilities and those along the gender and sexuality spectrum are the progressives – because they have historically not ever been served well by the systems we put in to place and they are willing to center the collective, the human beings. But the white men who are served really well by capitalism, indeed, who have their identities tied up so deeply with capitalism and colonialism, feel threatened.

So many of the things we take for granted – 40-hour work week, retiring at 65, the stock market as the measure of the economy – those are things that were set up to benefit the system. If we don’t question them, when we want to make things better for the people who aren’t served well by the system, we just add little appendages here and there. Overtime pay, retirement jobs at Walmart as greeters, no-fee online investing opportunities. WE ARE CENTERING THE SYSTEM.

But here’s the thing: this time in history right now is showing us that we can live outside the system, that we can find ways to center people.

Do you know how vulnerable people are getting fed right now? Not through systems – in SPITE of systems. There are collectives springing up all over the place to feed people who need it, neighbors offering to shop for other neighbors and deliver groceries to their doors, donations of gift cards to folks in need, people sending money through Venmo to people they’ve never met before. People centering people.

Do you know how people are going to survive not paying their rent? Not because of systems. The systems aren’t responding quickly enough – there are too many layers to cut through. If we suspend rent payments, we have to suspend  mortgages for the landlords and if we do that, we have to bail out the banks who hold those mortgages and then people will be mad that we bailed out the banks, etc. etc.  But local folks are banding together to form coalitions that are demanding that renters not be evicted and that rent be suspended – without penalty or interest – for now. There are millions of dollars in grant money flowing to artists and small businesses impacted by this because of individual people who centered the collective good.

Small farmers who were de-centered in favor of the system are banding together to find ways to get food to folks who want it. And in many cases, it’s working. Because we are centering people, not systems.

The huge hospitals that are cutting pay for healthcare workers because their clinics have all but shut down for elective visits? They’re centering the system. They are saying “we can’t pay for this” instead of saying “we will do what it takes to make sure that everyone is taken care of.”

The politicians who refuse to order shelter-in-place rules? They’re centering the system. They are saying “having people out buying and selling things in my community is more important than the health and well-being of the community.”

That pathetic stimulus package check you may or may not get? Centering the system. Even it doesn’t address everyone – college students who live on their own but are still claimed as dependents on their parents’ taxes get no check, social security beneficiaries whose threshold income is too low to file a tax return get no check.

The thing is, the system will tell you that it is working for the greater good, for the collective. But it isn’t. The system is working for itself. Anytime you hear “what will that cost?” or “we can’t logistically manage that,” you are witnessing a system centering itself. These systems are crumbling for a reason right now and that is because they rely on people to make them work, whether they serve the people or not. The system will try to coerce a certain number of people to stick with them by any means possible (overtime pay, threats of job loss, appealing to the needs of others), but make no mistake, your needs are not paramount.

One evening toward the end of our task force work, I walked out in to the dark parking lot alongside a teacher who works with students with special needs. We talked about our frustration and our hope that we hadn’t just been wasting hundreds of hours of our own time to come up with strong, bodacious recommendations that would simply be cast aside by the Superintendent. I talked to her about my theory of systems centering themselves and she got teary and it was then that I realized she was the inflection point and I felt overwhelmed for her. In a system that centers itself, if you are a teacher or a health care worker who truly centers the person you’re supposed to be serving, you are caught in a vise. In order to keep your job and do the work you do that you believe is so vital, you have to bow to the system. But in order to serve the children or the patients who come to you in the way they deserve to be served, you have to eschew all of the principles the system wants you to embrace – you have to be creative, find workarounds, often use your own resources to go above and beyond. The system is hurting us all if we truly want to center people and the collective good, not only the individuals being served, but those who are exhausting themselves and their resources to be the conduit between the systems and the collective.

It’s time for another way. May we use the next several weeks to dismantle the systems that center themselves. May we find the strength and courage to answer the question “how can we pay for that?” by saying “it doesn’t matter – we have to do what is right.” May we remember that if we value each other, we can look to the underground groups that are springing up to help each other outside the system and learn from them. This truly is the Matrix and we’re seeing the glitches.

A few blocks from my home is a care facility called Bailey-Boushay House. It started as an AIDS end-of-life unit and when I first moved to Seattle in 1994, I signed up to volunteer with one of their partners, The NW AIDS Foundation. I was working as a surgical assistant 40 hours a week, but I keenly recalled the explosion of HIV during my high school years and I wanted to be part of the solution, if I could.

In the beginning, I was assigned to a room with multiple desks and stacks upon stacks of newspapers. It was my job to comb the stacks and clip out articles about HIV and AIDS, looking for information about new treatments and anything that felt relevant to the work being done at Bailey-Boushay. As an aspiring physician and someone who doesn’t sit still well, it was frustrating. I couldn’t work out how this was meaningful, how it was helping anyone. At some point, I asked whether I could be doing something more personal, more interactive with humans.

My next task was to stand on the sidewalk behind a folding table on Broadway – a neighborhood that was populated with mostly gay men. My props were an underripe banana and a box of condoms, and I stood there for hours, arm outstretched, offering free condoms to whomever would take them. Occasionally, someone would stop and listen to my spiel, watch me unwrap a condom and demonstrate how to put it on using the banana as an erect penis. Most of them laughed as I did it, and I went along with the joke, imploring them to take a handful of rubbers with them and use them. This job felt slightly more important and real.

—-

This morning, I walked past the facility, which still serves those who are dying of AIDS. A block away is a park where some of the patients hang out during the day, smoking and joking with each other, many of them in wheelchairs. At night, there are always a few who settle down beneath the rhododendrons because there aren’t enough beds for everyone. I wondered how they are weathering this storm. I think about the decades and decades it’s been since the HIV outbreak, how it didn’t feel like an emergency in the beginning and then it did, but only for health care workers and those who were most vulnerable. I think about how this population of people were set aside, vilified, and how they’ve been largely forgotten over the years because we don’t have the collective energy to sustain alarm, and because treatments have been developed. I wonder if they feel particularly frightened with their immune systems already open and available to many avenues of attack, and if anyone is lifting their voices to be heard at this time.

The vast majority of those served here are men, many with addiction histories, many with co-occurring chronic illnesses, many homeless and mentally ill.

—-

It rained hard last night, huge drops pounding on the roof of my home for hours and hours. This morning the sun is out and steam rises off the streets. One path the dogs and I headed down was strewn with worms of every size – so many it was nearly impossible to walk forward without stepping on at least a few. I widened my gaze to scan a large swath of ground in front of me, walking purposefully and carefully, and marveled at how I was able to know where my feet were in space such that I could continue forward without having to tiptoe or look straight down to avoid the worms. Doing so would have slowed me down considerably, but somehow the combination of my body’s wisdom and my intention to tread lightly carried me through to a place where the path was clear.

On the way back home, three patients from Bailey-Boushay were sitting on the bench at the bus stop, smoking and laughing together. We kept our distance and smiled at each other. A block later, there was a man sleeping in the doorway of a hair salon, bundled in to a sleeping bag, and I wondered for a split second whether there was something I could leave for him that might ease his day, but I just kept moving.

—-

I think about how different things are now. How the internet has changed the world and how that job of clipping newspaper articles wouldn’t exist. We are able to see, almost in real-time, what innovations are happening to treat this new virus that didn’t feel like an emergency, and then did, and whose effects are largely unknown. We are as unprepared to manage it as we were to manage HIV, but standing on a sidewalk, unrolling condoms over the top of a banana won’t make a difference.

I think about how things are the same. We are still abandoning those who are marginalized, talking of rationing care and treatment, not acting quickly enough to find housing for those who are homeless, and worrying as much about the stock market as we are about the lives that will be lost. We are finding ways to blame others for getting it or spreading it.

I hope for transformation. I see people – regular people, not people in power – coming together to provide equipment and care. I see groups taking the time and energy to acknowledge, with enormous gratitude, the sacrifices of those who are caring for the sick and the dead. I hear messages of love and solidarity and I hope that these are the stuff of change. I want our collective wisdom and intention to move forward with care to carry us through to a place where the path is clear.

We are all learning a lot about our own fear responses and the fear responses of others, whether we know it or not. If you know what to look for, you can see how people around you have learned, over time, to acknowledge fear (or not), since most of us tend to fall in to our old patterns of responding when faced with a threat.

Ultimately, when faced with a crisis, whether it’s in our face and obvious or more non-specific and invisible, we rely on the things we’ve always done.

If we were taught to “suck it up and move forward,” we may throw ourselves in to work right now, crossing things off our list and attending video conferences with hair brushed, a pile of papers next to us, and a mug of hot coffee at the ready.

If we were taught to compartmentalize, set aside the alarm bells and “fake it,” we may be inviting friends over for dinner, gathering at the beach to play, heading out to the movies to take advantage of the empty seats.

If we were taught to seek understanding and plan for every contingency, we may be scouring the internet for articles to share, advising our friends on the best way to protect themselves and their families, and stocking up on cleaners and medication “just in case.”

I am reminded, when I hear people angrily commenting on how others are still out and about, or mocking those who seem disproportionately afraid, that many of us are running on autopilot because we are in fight or flight mode. Because the “fear” part of this response is jarring to many and uncomfortable for all.

We are not taught to acknowledge fear in healthy ways, for the most part.
We are not taught to sit with fear.
We are not taught that fear won’t break us in a way that is irrevocable.

But it won’t.

My ex-husband was a person who said things like “it’s fine,” “it will all work itself out.” He was someone who didn’t ever say to me, in 26 years together, that he was afraid. In many ways, I appreciated that. I was afraid a lot and having someone around who was seemingly never worried about the outcome, who was supremely confident that things would be ok, gave me a strange kind of confidence.

Except when I wanted him to be afraid. Then, his demeanor enraged me. It felt like gaslighting. I needed someone to acknowledge that some things are scary, and that being scared alone is a really awful, isolating thing. But I think, at that point, we had so firmly set our pattern that it would have taken a lot to undo it. I relied on him to be the stoic, fearless one, and he relied on me to hold the fear for all of us. It worked because my fear didn’t paralyze me. I was one of the “plan for every contingency” people who got strangely calm in the face of crisis, was able to discern and move forward with purpose. But there are some crises that call for us to do nothing for a while and I think this is one of them. I think that we are being called to learn to sit with fear and uncertainty and let it break our old patterns.

If we can learn to be scared together, and trust that it won’t kill us, we will learn so much. If we can acknowledge that the “sucking it up” and the “faking it” and the “just in case” are all avoidance mechanisms that don’t serve us and that place the burden of fear on others in disproportionate ways, we can begin to come together. It is a privilege to pretend that you’re not afraid and just go about your normal business. It is a privilege to choose not to sit with the emotions that this crisis stirs up within you. (Folks with disabilities and chronic illnesses, and those who are not served at all well by the dominant systems in place already know that – watch them, listen to them, learn from them).

We will not come out of this with privilege. We will not come out of this with the systems that serve us intact. And if we rush to either preserve the systems that are crumbling or to craft new ones before we’ve truly understood what this is all about, we are not doing the work that we are being called to do right now. We are being called to listen, to get very small and quiet and pay attention to what sustains us. Not what sustains the systems we rely on to sustain us, but what sustains us – the people, the connections, the acts that give us joy, the art and music that touch us, the nourishment and types of rest. We are being called to shed the notion that we can be independent, the idea that we can pick up where we left off without being changed by this.

While there are individual traumas happening because of this, this is a collective crisis, and it requires a collective consciousness. While there are individual people and families who are being hit harder than others, in one way or another we will all be touched by this and we will weather it much better if we recognize that. Having compassion for those who have not had to examine the way they respond to trauma before is key. Sitting together in fear (without wallowing – just noticing, acknowledging, and recognizing how we try to avoid it) is key.

I wonder how I may have harmed my ex by letting him be the one in our relationship who wasn’t allowed to be afraid. I regret not knowing that I was doing that. And I know how to recognize it now because I’ve sat with fear and I see how I avoided it. I wonder how I show up for my kids in this time and how I can shift to a way of being that is more in alignment with the collective consciousness. This will not destroy us. But if we let it, it will change us for the better.

Image Description: a spiral tattoo with the words “You are here” pointing to a specific spot on the spiral

I don’t know about anyone else, but in my life, when the Universe decides I need to make a big leap to the next phase of my personal evolution, it tends to pile on. As in, give me many instances of the same kind of bullshit over and over again until I start to pay attention and recognize it for what it is.

Thus, the last two weeks or so have been a lot. To say the least. A whole lot.

I won’t go in to the details, but I finally figured out this morning that this particular lesson is about making choices, pretty consequential choices. And that’s something I can have a hard time with because I am not one of those “trust your gut” kind of people. My gut is either not particularly loud, or I have an overdeveloped connection between my gut and my brain such that my brain is always always always weighing in, considering options, looking at potential outcomes and thinking of unintended consequences.

When this happens, I spin. The part of my brain that makes decisions goes very quiet and offline, and the part of my brain that convinces me that this particular decision is incredibly monumental and I’d better not fuck it up rules the day.

So, yeah.

At least three times in the last two weeks, I’ve faced decisions that I considered, second-guessed, made lists about, considered again, tried to divorce myself from, and then ultimately made. And guess what? The world didn’t stop turning.

I know I’m not the only one who worries about making the “Right” choice, but I think I’m learning that what I need to pay attention to more is the right reasons. Meaning, it’s more important to get really clear on my own values and needs and use those as the basis for examining why I’m conflicted. Figure out who or what is being centered in my deliberations.

In this time of crisis, I am reminded that we are all entrusted with caring for each other. that there is nothing more profound or elemental than that.

Today, my youngest daughter got up and went to work, nannying two precious boys she has taken care of for a year – 18-month old twins whose faces spread into grins when they see her, whose arms reach for her, who giggle when she makes silly noises. Who trust her.

I am holed up in my bathroom with a tortoise, having just filled a tub with warm water for him to bathe in, put together a pile of fresh greens for him to munch on, and cranked up the heat so he can roam and explore comfortably.

My pups are fed and walked. I’ve checked in with my oldest daughter who is far away and having to scramble to pack up and move out of her dorm. She and her friends are collaborating, pooling resources, opening up couches and offering rides to each other to ease the stress.

I just got off the phone with my mother’s caretaker, having learned that she is being placed on hospice care as of today, and the facility isn’t open to visitors. “She is so pleasant and lovely,” he says, detailing to me how they are caring for her at this time and encouraging me to call and get updates as often as I want to.

Someone posted in my neighborhood Buy Nothing group an offer to shop for anyone who is afraid to leave home. “How can I help you?” she asked.

Funds are being created for small businesses who are hit hard by the lack of mobility in Seattle.

We are entrusted to each other’s care.

Our strength is in our compassion, not our fear. Care comes in so many forms: a text message or DM, a Twitter post asking if others are ok, feeding our pets or tending the garden, offering thanks and gratitude to those who are working hard to make policy and heal the sick.

We’ve got each other.
We’ve got this.
It’s all we’ve got, and it is a lot.
Let’s take care of each other.

We know about biorhythms – the idea that human beings have certain cycles they go through that affect wellness and health. Circadian rhythms dictate when our bodies release hormones to help us sleep (melatonin) and wake up (cortisol). Other cycles include menstrual cycles and control fertility and reproduction. We know that our biology and physiology are affected by the rhythms of nature as well – mood and energy are affected by the number of hours of sunlight in the day, and for people who live in the extreme parts of the planet where there are endless days of light and then later, endless days of darkness, it is well-documented how their moods and productivity are affected. Similarly, people who work the “night shift” or graveyard shifts often have a difficult time synchronizing their sleep/wake patterns and can suffer from depression or anxiety and develop sleep disorders.

School-aged children have rhythms for their school “year,” at least in the United States, where they can expect to be in classes nine months of the year and then have summers off. We have decided that a work week ought to be five days on, two days off (if you’re lucky – many people with more than one job or who are engaging in work that requires overnight or weekend shifts don’t often get that cycle). In the case of summer, it is widely acknowledged that this began because of the agrarian cycle – that is, that families needed children home during the biggest growth and harvesting time of the year so that they could pitch in and get the work done. Now that our society is increasingly not driven by agriculture, there is a push to eliminate this and have school run throughout the year, and I have to say, conceptually, that seems to make sense, but when I think about cycles and rhythms and nature, I wonder if it’s a really bad idea.

If human beings have biological cycles that are influenced by the natural world, such as circadian rhythms, and if when we push past or ignore those influences we tend to struggle, I think it makes sense that there are additional, natural cycles that make sense to adhere to as well.

As we are in Fall in the Northern Hemisphere right now, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to watch the plant life around me ready itself for a hibernation of sorts. I remember learning in my Plant Systematics class in college that it’s best to plant new trees in the early fall so that they will take root and then rest during the winter before “waking up” again in the Spring and starting to grow. It seemed counterintuitive to me, given that soon after planting, the leaves would fall away and the ground would become hard and cold. Wouldn’t it make more sense to plant them in the Spring when they are beginning to really burst forth with new growth? My professor said no way. Fall is the time when trees focus their energy on developing roots – just because we can’t see it happening doesn’t mean it isn’t. In the Spring, the tree’s energy is directed toward flowers and leaves and new branch growth, which doesn’t leave much for roots, and since roots are what the tree really needs to thrive, Fall is the time.

Several years ago, I became aware of a similar phenomenon in my own life. I have the privilege to work on my own schedule, and I noticed that there were distinct times when I would become less productive as a writer. I do much of my “writing” in my head, and that part was definitely still happening, the deep thinking and rumination, but as far as putting actual words on paper that resulted in coherent essays or book chapters, it wasn’t showing up. I got frustrated with myself and tried to disrupt my normal practices, forcing myself to sit in a chair and type words, figuring that I was being “lazy” or just not trying hard enough. Everything I wrote during those times was garbage.

Generally, about halfway through February, I found myself on fire with ideas – writing writing writing and producing pitches and essays and making headway on manuscripts. Whew! I was back. Until about October – when things died again. It took me a few cycles to figure this out – I wasn’t *not* working during this time, I was simply not producing visible results. Everything I thought about, scribbled little notes about, chewed on in my mind, during this fallow time somehow made its way in to my finished products in the late winter or following spring, like buds on a tree. Beating myself up during the time when I was working on roots wouldn’t change anything about the end result.

Our culture is so obsessed with progress. Goals. Continual growth. But the truth is, there is no such thing as constant growth where you surpass old milestones over and over again. Yes, trees get larger and larger, but they do that with a built-in fallow period, where they rest. We know that much of brain growth in humans occurs during sleep. To expect ourselves to be continually setting goals, working toward them, setting new ones, working toward those, setting more, working toward those, and only expect rest to happen at the end of our lives (retirement, for the folks lucky enough to afford it) is making us sick. The natural world knows that we need rest on a regular basis – that there are times when resting is actually in our own best interest if we want to stay healthy and keep growing. Education researchers know that giving kids time to sit with new ideas and incorporate them on their own after they’re introduced is important. Instead of packing class time full of content from beginning to end, kids process information better if they’re given opportunities to ruminate on new content, turn it over with classmates in discussion, let it rest.

All the signs point to the importance of rest and fallow states, both for physical and mental health, but our culture isn’t set up for that. We revere the folks who can survive on four hours of sleep, praise the kid who goes to school, plays sports, and has a part time job, and expect parents to work full time and then come home and help kids with homework, prepare meals, do laundry, drive to extracurricular activities, and volunteer for the PTA. The failure has come for us humans because we’ve centered the system and not the collective good. Centering the system is what leads us to ask questions about where we can impact “the economy” or why it’s dangerous to let our kids have the summer to play instead of looking for jobs that will look good on a college application or going abroad on a service trip (that will also look good on a college application). It means that the families who see their kids burning out and falling to pieces feel as though they have to find a way to help their kid do the “personal work” of assimilating to the system as opposed to listening to their own inner guidance that will tell them what they need (often, rest and a recalibration of their energy toward their passions and values).

But this centering of the system, where has it gotten us? Centering the system is also centering those who benefit from the system (often, white, male, capitalist, Western-ideals, individualism-as-paramount) and sacrificing the rest of the people to that system. This is how we end up with an increased suicide rate among adolescents, college sophomores declaring majors because they have to, not because they actually have spent the time cultivating their own ideas about what is important to them and what their true passions are. This is how we end up with mid-life crises where people who believed in and followed the system suddenly come to realize that their own satisfaction and well-being are not important in this schema.

So why center the system? Why buy in to it? Because we’ve been told that it will keep us safe. But we’re learning on a large scale that that was nonsense. Actively disrupting our own biological rhythms and imperatives, cycles of work and rest, the phenomenon of belonging and cooperation, has meant that we are divided and miserable, and burning our own planet. Our blind faith in the system (or desperate clinging to it as a life raft in the middle of a burning sea) leads us to ask questions like “how will we pay for universal health care” (centering the system) instead of asking ourselves whether or not we truly believe that each and every person deserves to be cared for (centering the collective).

When we as parents and educators of kids shut down conversations about disrupting the public education system for the good of all by saying “it’s too expensive” or “that is too hard” we are acknowledging our allegiance to the system and not to our children. Many of my personal heroes have been people who didn’t follow the “traditional” pathways, but who recognized their own worth and the value of connection to others and forged ahead. Those who followed them often did so because that message stirred something inside them – a longing to be like that, to find themselves rooted in and cared for by the community, not isolated by a competitive, capitalist, lone wolf system.

Our world is literally burning and flooding right now because we’ve centered the system (and the folks who benefit from it in the short term). We have some choices to make and I, for one, feel like listening to the kids. If we haven’t completely crushed their sense of wonder and curiosity and passion and desire to belong to something bigger than themselves, they will lead us.

Yesterday, I went to a book launch that was very different from any other launch I’ve been to – for a book I’ve already read that brought me to tears more than once, as a writer, as a mother, as someone who loves people who struggle with addiction. The book is A House on Stilts, written by Paula Becker, and she took great care to bring this book out in to the world in partnership with representatives from agencies in Seattle who help young adults with addiction and homelessness.

More than once, I found myself swooning during the launch. First, when Paula spoke about addiction as a community issue, rather than a personal or familial one. Then again, when Christopher Hanson, the Director of Engagement Services for YouthCare in Seattle used the phrase “unconditional positive regard,” and when all of the panelists spoke about the necessary collaboration between families and social service agencies as we work to craft supports for young people in crisis.

Paula wrote this book knowing that there will be readers who will seek to distance themselves from her story because it is so painful, and many of them will do that by examining her choices and using them to excoriate her and her husband. The book itself is brilliant in the way it combines her personal journey as the mother of someone who fought opioid addiction with the facts about how our communities treat those who struggle and their families. While it is often incredibly sad, it is not a ‘woe is me’ tale or a defense of her individual choices, but a call to action that we must heed if we are to do right by this generation of young people who have been caught in the grip of addiction and all that it bleeds in to – unemployment, homelessness, mental illness, and physical health challenges.

Unfortunately, so many of our public health systems fail to adequately address the needs of young people and families who seek help – especially black and brown people. And over time, the continued failures make it hard to believe that the systems won’t do more harm than good. Threatening to put folks in jail, cut off services, remove children from their parents’ home – these are not ways to heal, and they are certainly not ways to engender trust. If you are a person who has been denied services or threatened with punishment of some sort over and over again, the likelihood that you will continue to ask for help gets smaller and smaller, and you become more isolated and more at risk of harm.

When families are expected to support a loved one with addiction in isolation, they quickly become overwhelmed. I have had personal experience loving and supporting someone who is constantly in crisis – waiting for the phone call that will tell me they are injured or dead, getting the phone call with an urgent plea for shelter or money, holding that person time and again while they shake and sob and say they are ready to get help. The toll it takes on your physical body is real, and the emotional triggers last for – well, decades at this point, and I don’t know if they’ll ever go away. The adrenaline rush that floods your body when you get that call, the shaking, the lump in your throat, the voice in your head that says, “it’s happening again and I have to marshall the strength to manage it,” are nearly impossible to ignore. If we do not have others to reach out to for help who don’t have the same visceral ties to the person struggling (and, thus, can help in different ways that are often more effective), we are quickly depleted in every way.

When partnerships are rooted in genuine care and a purposeful dovetailing of skill sets and resources, they are amazingly effective. As a family member or individual who is struggling, finding those people to partner with is challenging at best, and finding partners with adequate funding and training and physical space is even harder. When we can find them, as mothers and fathers and caregivers, we are allowed to set boundaries that enable us to continue to function and take care of ourselves. Paula’s story is not unique, and it is imperative that we listen to it keenly. Her willingness to share the pain of her journey with her son’s addiction and her ability to hold it up as a call to action for all of us to come together and recognize this as a community crisis is courageous and wise. Find this book, read it, and reach out. Our elected officials need to know that we want them to support funding for the agencies who are tasked with helping individuals with addiction. They need to know that we believe this is a crisis for all of us, that we all belong to each other, and that nobody can do this alone. Even families with financial resources cannot buy their way in to rehab facilities if there are no beds available.

Perhaps the most striking thing Paula said during the book launch was this: “…you cannot starve someone in to recovery, nor can you shame them in to it. I ask you to have compassion – the next time you see someone who is homeless, don’t look away. Offer a smile, meet their eyes, ask if they are hungry and buy them a sandwich.”

The beauty of this book is that compassion not only means kindness toward that one person you see struggling, but it also means that we need to work to build systems of compassion that support our community members in their endeavors to heal. We do, truly, all belong to each other. May we start acting like it, soon.