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.
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.
We know the power of story to motivate and connect people, to convince and add color. But I am increasingly aware of how storytelling has become co-opted over time, bent and twisted to be used as a power tactic or a marketing tool.
Story is a tool – it used to be a tool to educate; elders would tell fables and parables to illustrate concepts. It is used to entertain, to take us out of ourselves, and it is an incredible way to build empathy. Telling our stories helps us release them from our bodies and, in the right setting, reminds us that we aren’t alone.
In the last several decades, story has also become a way to ask for validation, acceptance, consideration. And while that might not seem like a bad thing on its face, in the context of people without power telling their stories to people in power as a plea for empathy or understanding, it feels heavy in my gut. It feels more and more like justifying our existence, defending our choices, hoping to be considered equally human and deserving of care.
Many years ago, I began interviewing women about their stories. Specifically, their stories around being pregnant and having to choose whether or not to stay pregnant. I was increasingly frustrated that the political tug-of-war around abortion rights seemed never ending and I was certain that the conversation was all wrong. My hope was that centering the stories I wrote on the issue of choice would shift the spotlight a bit and add depth – open people’s eyes to the notion that the issue wasn’t two sides of the same coin, but far more complicated than that.
I had fully bought in to this new notion of what story was for. I was using these stories to not only educate people, but to convince them that these women deserved their consideration.
Sharing our stories is an enormous act of vulnerability. Opening ourselves up and shining a light on the parts of us that feel different, look different, are different is incredibly courageous, especially if the listener is not simply a vessel, but a judge. And while story is known for building empathy, it shouldn’t be the key that opens the gate to empathy. If, in telling our stories, we are hoping to gain acceptance and validation of our worth, and the listener is the one who gets to grant that (or not), story has become twisted and co-opted.
The notion of needing to tell our stories so that people in power will acknowledge us and tap us on the shoulder with their scepters, allowing us entry in to the world of Worthy Humans is abhorrent to me. We need to start with the belief that we are all worthy and cherished. People with disabilities, people of color, transgender or non-binary people, women, elders, childless folks, immigrants – nobody should have to tell their story in order to be regarded as worthy of respect. Nobody should have to show their scars and bare their souls so that they can be deemed worthy of care and honor.
Our stories are reminders that we are not alone. They teach us about the depth and the breadth of human experience, but they should not be a pre-requisite for civil rights, for love, for worthiness. The power of our stories is that they help us connect to others, and to use them as currency for equality and humane treatment is wrong.
I admit that when I started my interview project, it was with the intent to use the stories as political capital. I hoped that they would be published in a book that would reach the ears of people in power, that the stories would shift something inside them fundamentally and convince them once and for all that reproductive rights are vital, foundational, human rights. The women who spoke with me trusted me and, in some cases, had never told their story to anyone else but me. I was powerfully moved and believed that it would make a difference. These days, I resent the fact that I should have to tell my story in order to gain agency over my own body, in order to maintain or regain my civil rights and be seen worthy of that by people in power.
I believe in the power of story. When someone trusts me with their truest, deepest truth, it is a gift I do not take lightly. As receivers of story, we have an opportunity to be deliberate and generous with our listening, to recognize that we are being given a gift. I have felt the significant difference between telling my story to someone who is willing to hear it, contain it, hold it and reflect back to me that I am not alone in my difference, in my pain, in my perspective and telling my story to someone in an effort to get them to recognize my humanity. The first instance feels healing and fuels connection – the second feels defensive and frantic and defiant. Sharing something profound in an effort to find community is expansive. Sharing something profound as a way to justify my existence or worth or right to have agency over my body is like always being a step behind, and it reinforces the power differential between me and the receiver.
I appreciate the people who gather the courage to speak for themselves and others – the ones who testify in public hearings in support of accommodations or policy shifts or funding sources. I simultaneously lament that movements like #shoutyourabortion or #youknowme have to exist, that we have been forced to use our stories as justification for our choices, to plead for help from those in power. It isn’t as though there is some tipping point, some critical number of stories that are told that will shift the narrative in favor of acceptance and compassion, in favor of the foundational belief that we are all human and, as such, equally deserving of the right to live freely, move through the world without obstacles in our way or a target on our back.
Until we can start at a baseline of humanity for all, equal rights, and acknowledgment of the historical systemic ways we oppress women and people of color and folks with disabilities and non-binary gender expression, etc. etc. we will not be able to truly hear the stories of our fellow humans. We will always be looking for the “hook,” the seminal difference, the spark that makes us say, “Oh, ok, you’re not like those other __________.” But in my heart, that’s not what story is about. Story is about bringing us together, reminding us of our connections, and reinforcing the power of being acknowledged.
I spent the first eight years of my life as a Catholic. Went to church, learned the hymns and the responses and the stories. Longed to have my first real Communion, marveled at the beautiful robes and pomp and circumstance. Learned about God.
When my parents divorced, even though I didn’t understand the circumstances of it at the time, I was told that we were no longer welcome in the church. My parents had been married in the Catholic church and a divorce was not allowed. I went through a period of being unmoored – for a variety of reasons related to my parents’ split – and I remember wondering, Where is God?
This morning, as I drove Lola to class, I turned on NPR and heard a rabbi ask that same question. In the wake of the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue, so many are trying to fit the events in to some understanding of their framework of faith. So many times over the years, I’ve done the same. I would get angry with God and turn away, thinking that no real God could ignore me simply because my parents made mistakes. I fought against the notion of any omniscient being, took a comparative religion class in college and learned about the different ideas and iterations of this being throughout the ages, in different cultures. I have called myself an atheist, a “recovering Catholic,” agnostic. All of those labels were in reaction to what I absorbed from my years in church and from my mom, who held on to her faith in God with a fierceness and tenacity I never understood.
When I finally stopped reacting and thinking about God intellectually, I was able to recognize what I know as spirit, connection. I don’t feel a vertical connection with some other being that exists above all of us. I don’t think I ever have. Intellectually, I believed in that for years – relied on it, even. But I don’t recall ever feeling it within me. What I do feel is a horizontal connection, a link to each and every other sentient being that reminds me I am part of something bigger, that I am not alone, that I am held and I hold others. I don’t have a name for it, and I don’t frankly feel the need to.
I understand deeply the question, Where is God. The need to find some meaning or framework for processing the horrific acts we humans perpetrate is visceral and the idea that there is some being out there that can hold us in our grief and pain and provide answers is often central to our ability to move forward in the face of such trauma. For now, I believe that we are it, we are the ones, and it is that connection between us that allows us to continue on. When Jewish people are targeted, those of us who are not Jewish are called upon to hold those who are, we are called upon to acknowledge the pain, feel grief profoundly, and hold tight. We are necessary to lift those who cannot walk on their own right now and carry them with us as we do the work to rebuild, affirm love, create peace. When Muslims or Native Americans or black and brown people or people with disabilities are targeted, we are called to do the same work. My connection with you is not dependent on your religious beliefs or the color of your skin, the language you speak or where you were born or whether you can hear or see or walk. My connection with you is much deeper and is rooted in something that goes beyond physical form, and that connection goes both ways, if I let it. That means that when you are in pain, I can feel it if I choose to, and in doing so, I can help relieve some of your burden. It also means that when I act with love in my heart, it raises me and you, and reaffirms that tie. When I offer to speak on your behalf when you’re in pain and you can’t, that is “God”. When you listen to me with love and care, that is “God”. When we come together to spread peace and acknowledge the worth of every sentient being as equal, that is “God”.
If the question, Where is God is in service to preventing future massacres like the one that happened in Pittsburgh or the killing of two black people in Kentucky, the only answer I have to offer is this connection, this affirmation of our link to each other. When we turn away and refuse to feel each others’ suffering, we deny the existence of this thing that ties us to each other, and we also deny ourselves the support we gain from others around us. We are supposed to live in community with each other, we are supposed to rely on each other, we are supposed to offer each other our unique gifts when we can and draw on the gifts of others as well. Call it what you will, but I think this is what will save us.
One year ago today, I was surrounded by a group of amazing women who helped move Eve and Lola and I in to our new home. They packed boxes, cleaned cupboards, organized movers, found screwdrivers, and held me up during an incredibly difficult time. The transition from a life I loved and knew and assumed I’d always have to a mostly blank canvas felt simultaneously frightening and exciting, awfully sad and tinged with possibility. I was able to experience the full range of emotion precisely because of these women who showed up, who loved me and my daughters, and who helped me feel safe.
I am so incredibly grateful and so lucky to have such people in my life.
In my previous life, there had been lots of dinner parties and events – many occasions to host friends and family and fill the house with laughter and great food.
In the last year, I’ve hosted scores of the girls’ friends for both impromptu study sessions/girls’ nights and planned Halloween or New Year’s gatherings, but I’ve not felt like I was quite ready to host something on my own for grown ups. Until now.
It wasn’t supposed to be a housewarming party, but it turns out that this morning, my new home feels properly “warmed.” Last night, I hosted a house concert as a fund raiser for Eat With Muslims, an organization started by two women in Seattle to try and build community and understanding of Muslim culture and individuals who are Muslim using food (brilliant!). Sheryl Wiser, a local singer-songwriter suggested that we do it as part of her Pies + Persistence project that raises money for nonprofits who are working for social justice and human rights in the face of this current Presidential administration’s often horrific policies. She would play music, and Lola (who has been working furiously on her own original music for over a year) would open the performances with three of her songs.
We put out the word on social media and via email and the house filled up with amazing salads, deli trays, the most delicious Somalian chicken and rice dish I have had in my lifetime, and cranberry pie (tart). So many of us didn’t know each other when the evening started, but the conversation never lagged and the plates were never empty. We sat and stood around the kitchen island laughing and telling each other about our lives and when it came time to sit for music, my heart was full. My house was full of people ranging in age from teens to 70+, enjoying each others’ company with the dogs weaving their way around the room sniffing for scraps.
The music was beautiful and heartfelt and mesmerizing, and people stayed afterward to continue chatting and laughing. When I fell in to bed just before midnight, I was grinning from ear to ear. I can’t think of a better way to flood our new home with love and positive energy than by gathering a group of people for food and music to support the hard work of women making a difference one dinner party at a time.
This life, it is a joyful one. There are good people in our midst doing amazing things. I can’t wait to throw another party.
Thanks for visiting my site. I’m driven by the exploration of human connection and how we can better reconnect to ourselves, our families, and our communities. Aside from my books, I hope you’ll check out my blog, and some of my other writing to find more perspectives and tools.