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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

speech bubble with a jumble of numbers inside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

magenta background with one round white tablet and four hexagonal white tablets beneath

I woke up this morning feeling weighed down by all of the recent news. I told a friend that, while I continue to take steps to support things I believe in every day, it is increasingly feeling like I’ve used all of my fingers to plug holes in the dike and tomorrow when I wake up there will be a new leak that I don’t have capacity for. I know from experience that I feel this way from time to time and eventually I find my footing and get grounded in the knowledge that there are lots of others with their fingers holding the deluge back too and that the little things I am doing are important. And yet, here I am, today, feeling overwhelmed.

I don’t write about reproductive rights much anymore which is a huge departure for me. For years, mostly when my kids were young, I wrote about it on my blog, for online outlets like The Feminist Wire, and even for an anthology called Get Out of My Crotch! I spent years interviewing people who had struggled with the decision of whether or not to terminate a pregnancy and crafted a manuscript out of those stories, determined to humanize the “Pro-Choice/Pro-Life” debate once and for all.

Naïve. Yes.

Despite years of shopping the manuscript to agents and publishers, nobody wanted it. It was either “not controversial enough” (because I told stories of abortion, adoption, and even those people who chose to raise a child) or “not interesting” (because one – male – publisher told me it wouldn’t be interesting to men and therefore, it wouldn’t sell enough copies). Every year or so I pulled it out, dusted it off, updated it (because there were always new laws and new fights to talk about) and tried again. Until finally, I decided to put it out into the world anyway, because I felt bad that these people had trusted me with their stories and they weren’t being shared. I asked a friend to help me make it into a website, hired a graphic designer and a web designer, took pains to make sure that it was entirely anonymous (which is bullshit in and of itself because I wanted to make sure that my children wouldn’t be targets for some anti-choice militant who was angry about my views on abortion), and launched it. But it didn’t gain traction, mostly because I am crap at marketing and social media buzz and also because it’s hard to do that when you’re trying to protect your identity.

In the years since, I have wrestled with the idea of whether or not to keep resurrecting the book or the website for a variety of reasons. I got busy with other things and frankly, the older I get, the more I think that this is a Sisyphean feat – the topic of reproductive rights in the United States. But also, because, in a very idealistic way, I don’t think that women should have to bare their souls and rip open their wounds in order to be seen as human and deserving of the right to make their own healthcare decisions. In many cases, the people who are making the draconian laws such as the one that just took effect in Texas don’t deserve to hear my story and Bianca’s story and Ayesha’s story. I am past believing that it will make a difference. Despair. That’s why I stopped writing about reproductive rights. And it makes me sick to say that, to admit it. I had such hope that the Plan B pills and the abortion pills would end the conversation for the most part. But I’m certain that when Roe v. Wade was enacted, some folks hoped that it would be the end of it, too.

That same friend I was talking to this morning reflected on the last year and noted that he had harbored such hope that things would look different now in terms of Covid. He admitted that six months ago, he believed that the rollout of vaccines would have an enormous impact and we would not be where we are now with new outbreaks and variants and many places still locked down.

It occurred to me that part of the problem is that we come up with these ideas, these solutions, perched atop the old systems, and we try to implement them that way. We are mapping our solutions on the old, broken systems that were designed for rich white men in Western countries. Of course they won’t work for societies made up of people who aren’t mostly rich white men. The vaccine rollout didn’t fundamentally change anything because it was largely rolled out in Western countries that are mostly ruled by white men. Variants are coming from parts of the world that don’t have the same access to vaccines and other public health measures. These restrictive abortion laws are being mapped on to a system that was created by and for white men – with principles of punishment and control – and because the majority of the populace of this country is not white men, there is a great deal of suffering that will come with them. The upheaval we are experiencing right now, over and over again, is thanks to things being determined and run by people who don’t represent the actual people who live within the systems. The majority of Americans support abortion rights, so why is it that these laws keep getting prioritized? Because the lawmakers are white men, by and large. The majority of Americans didn’t support the war in Afghanistan, so why did it keep getting funded to the detriment of other social programs for people in America? Because the lawmakers are white men, by and large. Or they are well-served by the systems that white men created, and they have an interest in upholding them.

I have no answers today, I’m afraid, only the message that if you are feeling despair and frustration and overwhelm, you are not alone. If you are feeling hopeful that we are beginning to dismantle these old systems, please let me know and send me a light in the darkness today. In the meantime, I will support the outside-the-system things that are happening to give women who are pregnant options and amplify the voices of the folks who are calling for a new way of being.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sandy beach with large rocks and a sunny blue sky

There is no One Right Way to live a life.

It seems absurd that I have to consciously remind myself of that from time to time. That there is an undercurrent of dogmatic belief humming inside me that tells me I’m doing it Wrong upon which I surf daily.

I’ve written before about how a sudden push to Improve Myself (!) is a red flag for me – how it signals that I am at some crossroads, heading down a path of Not Good Enough and eventual depression. And this move, this reimagining of my physical surroundings and my community and my work, has certainly ignited that. As I think about finding new friends and creating new routines for myself and struggle to identify people and organizations in this new area whose values align with my own, there is a small voice inside me saying, “you have the opportunity to show up as a better version of you – one that is more mindful, smarter, presents with an impressive resumé, speaks Spanish (I don’t, but I could bust my ass to learn), looks better in a swimsuit (WTAF? this voice – oy).”

And so I spent time on the elliptical machine yesterday and made sure to do my daily DuoLingo lesson (until I ran out of hearts because those damn verb conjugations get me every single time), thought about eating more veggies and less fruit, and worried about how to make meaningful connections with strangers online.

I met a woman a couple weeks ago who was sleeping in the park near my house. We talked for about 30 minutes and it is clear that she is not being served by any of the systems well-meaning politicians and non-profit organizations have put in place to meet the needs of the unhoused here in my new town. Not that that is much different than the way things worked in Seattle, but it was disheartening to be reminded that all of our systems are predicated on the notion that there IS One Right Way to live a life, and that if you want to be treated with respect and care, you have to Follow the Rules. Indeed, A volunteered that more than one of her friends has told her that if she just Follows the Rules, she will certainly find shelter and get back on her feet soon.

A and I exchanged email addresses and have kept in touch. She is a poet and a musician and a teacher and has been unhoused for more than a year at this point. She has done some combination of Following the Rules and not following them to no avail. It is clear that she is struggling to express herself in words, is more and more frustrated and angry at the failures of the system, and that some folks who are charged with helping unhoused people find her abrasive and alienating. And, I think, of course she is. Being ignored by most people and then treated with contempt by many others who you ask for help would make anyone frustrated and angry over time. Engaging in a daily struggle to find food and water, a place to go to the bathroom, and a way to get to the social service agencies from wherever you camped overnight would make anyone irritable. Being physically attacked (which she has been on more than one occasion in a shelter setting) and having your meager possessions stolen while having your present circumstances downplayed by your friends would make anyone struggle with their mental health.

I am in no way equating my situation with that of A or other unhoused people. Please know that. I am simply struck by how all of us have been so brainwashed by the systemic rule-centered society that we diminish our own value and dehumanize ourselves and others. When we are struggling, we look to ourselves for the solution, we assume we have done something wrong, or we haven’t quite found the answer yet. We have internalized the messages that encourage us to suck it up and soldier on. We assume that if someone is houseless or jobless it is because of something they aren’t doing right. I tell myself it’s my own fault that I feel lonely and frustrated – it’s because of the choices I made.

But what if the answer doesn’t lie in me becoming fluent in Spanish and losing 30 pounds and working with a Life Coach to learn how to market myself better? What if A can find help not by being a more presentable, more compliant unhoused person, but by showing up just as she is and asking to have her needs met? What if the answer lies in community and relationship and people who care about others simply because we all live here together? What if, instead of presenting A with a list of rules she has to follow in order to receive shelter and food, she is offered those things because she is in need of them? What if we learned to meet each other where we are and act on the belief that there isn’t One Right Way to live a life, beyond treating each other with respect and care? What if we stopped subscribing to the notion that there is some external set of criteria that we need to check off in order to be ok, to be happy, to be worthy of living in community? What if we just built relationships on a foundation of now, of enough, of acknowledgment of your worth and mine just as we are today, however we show up?

logo for Education for Racial Equity on a grey background with overlapping circles of red, blue, and yellow

The past year has been an incredible time of learning for me, specifically around anti-racism and Whiteness. I say this not to pat myself on the back – honestly, I’m incredibly embarrassed that I haven’t done this work before – but to acknowledge how much I don’t know. I began, like many others, after the extrajudicial (read: unjustified, police) killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and have been lucky enough to have found a group of other white women with whom to do it. Through those interactions, I’ve learned of books and workshops and I recently joined a cohort of white people working with a group called Education for Racial Equity. 

There are a series of lessons and interactions that will occur over the next nine months and after the first one, I am already making notes and observing my own thoughts and choices, and feeling that particular “brain on fire” sensation that happens for me when I know I am about to really deepen my understanding of something new. During the workshop yesterday, the leader played a short video of Dr. Ken Hardy speaking about relationships (one of my favorite topics, as you know if you read my posts often) and the notion of subjugated versus privileged self.

We talked about this in the context of trauma and individuals who have suffered trauma – specifically white people, since the entire group identifies as white. The idea is that, if you have suffered trauma, you formed a “subjugated” self at some point in your life. Whether that is because you’re a woman and you have been harassed or assaulted because of that gender identity, or if you’ve been denied specific opportunities or absorbed microaggressions directed at you because of that, etc., you have some part of you that identifies with that persona.

Because I am white, I also necessarily have privilege in all spaces. That doesn’t mean my trauma isn’t important and that it doesn’t deserve to be acknowledged, but in the first part of the speech, Dr. Hardy says that when we are in relationship and someone “is reaching out to me, in my privileged position … and I respond from a subjugated position…” that causes harm to the relationship. It stunts the possibility of coalition-building. This was my first “brain on fire” moment.

Immediately, I replayed times in my head when someone came to me for help or solidarity and I responded defensively – justifying my previous inaction or trying to explain why I couldn’t help now because of my subjugated self. I’ve made excuses for my choice not to act definitively – I can’t speak up in this meeting because I’m a woman and my position is precarious/nobody will believe me. I’ve justified my decision not to push beyond that first no – I can’t confront that person because it brings up fears of being verbally attacked that remind me of a painful time.

I recognize now that often, I was being asked to align myself and use my privilege as a white person to advocate for change and instead of acknowledging my privilege, I retreated to my subjugated self.

Later in the workshop, I had another moment of realization when another video played in which a white woman was talking about being in a group with many people of color and telling a story about an incredibly difficult time when her father was persecuted as a young boy because he was Jewish. She acknowledged that she was attempting to create a connection with many of the others in the room by illustrating that her family had experienced prejudice and something really terrifying, and it was only later when she was able to understand that telling that story caused harm to the other group members. At one point as she reflected on the incident, she said she realized that, while it truly was a horrific story and one that had impacted her family in a significant way, it wasn’t her “current reality.” Meaning that she was telling this story as a way to do something Brené Brown calls “hotwire connection,” as though her story was somehow equal to the current day reality of the people of color in the room. She was using her subjugated self to try and make a personal connection when what the people of color needed from her was for her to show up and acknowledge her privileged self.

The fact is, I have a subjugated self. I think we all do. And my subjugated self rarely affects my current reality with regard to privilege. While the person I am is certainly shaped and impacted by my trauma history, I do not leave my house every morning knowing that I will likely be treated poorly because of my status as a woman. I move through the world believing that I will be treated fairly for the most part.  Yes, there may be catcalls or misogyny, and those are personal issues, but the systems through which I move regularly are not set up to malign me or ignore me or cause me significant effort to navigate. By and large, my subjugated self and the stories that accompany it are not my current reality. And if I want to create relationships and collaborations that will change these systems of oppression, I have to show up as my privileged self.

At the end of the video, Dr. Hardy tells a story of a man who blamed the elevator for nearly taking “my fricking arm off” as a way to talk about how we tend to resist self-awareness in favor of blaming the problem on something outside of ourselves. It was the elevator that was the problem, not the fact that the man stuck his arm in the door to try and stop it from closing all the way. All of us have had experiences like that, which is why the audience laughed so hard at the anecdote. But in relationship, it is even more important to try and develop some awareness of the choices we are making when we respond to others, and decide if those choices align with the goal we are shooting for. If I am choosing to respond to someone’s request for help with excuses about why I can’t do it or a story about my own hardship, is that more about getting them to respond to some need I have for comfort or solidarity than about using my position to lift us both up? When I think about it that way, I have to say it is. And that is ultimately not what I’m going for.

I have a feeling the next nine months are going to be mind-blowing and humbling for me. Stay tuned.

The food bank is closed.

It’s Wednesday and the day when I would normally be headed out to a five or six hour shift at the food bank eight blocks from my house. But I’m not going today, or ever again, as it turns out. The parent agency shut us down last week for a variety of reasons (all of which made me sad and frustrated and angry).

Our little food bank was the smallest in the city, and it was because of our small size that we were able to be agile and flexible and make a huge difference in people’s lives, both before the onset of Covid and during. The director – the only paid employee – did the job part-time but she did it with all of her heart and soul. She was dedicated to making sure that we centered our clients, that we understood who they were and what they needed, and that we led with equity and social justice principles and treated every one of the folks we served with dignity. The rest of us were volunteers – some working two hours a week and others many, many more than that.

Because of our location, we served a diverse population of folks – Cambodian and Chinese and Filipino communities. Hispanic folks and Black folks and white folks, too. Before Covid hit, we were set up like a store and farmer’s market (thanks to the partnership we had with a local church congregation that brought us gorgeous fresh produce every Wednesday morning – things like bok choy and garlic and melon and apples and salad greens) and when we opened our doors at noon, there was a line around the block. We had homeless folks who came to us looking for ready-to-eat food (which we made sure to set aside for them; things with pop tops and plastic utensils and granola bars and boxes of raisins), and a partnership with a convenience store down the block that would allow them to use the microwave to heat up their food without asking them to make a purchase. We served many many women and children living in domestic violence shelters or transitional housing, and often set aside birthday cakes or cupcakes for special occasions. We knew our families who needed nut-free or gluten-free food, those who didn’t know how to use canned goods, but wanted frozen meat and fresh vegetables, and we worked with each individual to put together the food that they needed and wanted and would use the most.

When Covid hit, we worked hard to shift, delivering food to every household (which meant we could no longer serve homeless folks), and putting together boxes using what we got from the federal government as well as using donated money to purchase things like cooking oil and baking mix and spices to supplement. The director and I sat down every week and crafted a menu for the following week, anchoring it around one or two specific meals, after looking over what we were projected to receive in our delivery. If we saw we were getting frozen ground beef, we purchased sloppy joe mix and hamburger buns and a complementary vegetable. Egg noodles prompted us to get all the ingredients for tuna casserole. Anticipating the holidays, we stockpiled whole chickens and purchased stuffing and solicited donations of pumpkin pie for everyone. We put together boxes with snacks and made sure we gave everyone enough for multiple breakfasts, lunches, and dinners every week. And it still wasn’t perfect because some weeks we only got pork and we knew our Muslim families wouldn’t eat it; we knew our gluten free clients couldn’t eat about 30% of what we sent them. But we had no choice – we had to send everyone the same thing, and we found other ways to serve our community.

With the leftover produce and some of the random things we got from food drives and our snack supply, I put together boxes of food every week to take to the tent encampments in the neighborhood. I brought loaves of sandwich bread, peanut butter and jelly, pouches of tuna, small boxes of cereal and shelf-stable milk, and apples and bananas. We found a way to help the folks we used to help.

When we had a surplus of huge quantities of frozen meat and rice and orange juice, I called two mutual aid groups and arranged for them to meet me on the weekend and fill their cars and trucks to serve their communities. It helped us free up freezer space and made sure the food was eaten by folks who needed it. Another one of the volunteers is a pastor and he arranged for a group who makes sack lunches for homeless folks to come and get juice boxes and sandwich fixings on a regular basis.

We worked really hard to adapt to the Covid restrictions placed on us, working outside in pouring rain and wind trying to keep the food dry as we social-distanced and packed individual boxes, putting together a crew of amazing volunteer drivers who came one by one all day on Wednesday to fill their cars with boxes of food to drop at households in need, and pivoting when our delivery was late or when we got more than we could possibly store in our small facility. When we got CARES Act money and realized how restricted it was and how quickly we had to use it or lose it, we spent some time bitching about the bureaucracy and how out of touch politicians are with the needs of people in this country, and then we put our heads together to figure out how to make it work for the people we feed every week.

So when I got a text message at 2pm last Tuesday, informing me that the following day was our last day and that we needed to get rid of all the food in our storage areas (eight freezers and five refrigerators, two accessory sheds plus a 400 square foot warehouse) by the end of the day, I was stunned. In addition to the food we had been stockpiling in anticipation of another lockdown, we had 10,000 pounds of food still to be delivered that day. And all of the other groups – the homeless camps, the mutual aid groups, the sack lunch folks – they were out of luck after that, along with our regular delivery clients. The agency believed that the other food banks in the city could “absorb the need,” but they have no idea what we do or how many people we feed in any given week from our little tiny food bank. We have done a phenomenal job of feeding hundreds and hundreds of people with the very few resources we’re given, and we have done it with dedication and a bedrock foundation of love. There were always frustrating elements to the work – the times when we had thousands of pounds of dried beans and local grocery stores sent us hundreds of day-old (weeks old) pastries, but we lacked milk and fresh meat; when neighbors who were moving emptied their pantry of expired, half-eaten items and dumped them on the sidewalk with a note that said “food bank.” But because we were small, we were also scrappy.

I showed up at the food bank last Wednesday just after 7am and got to work. After planning with the director, I mobilized the volunteer crew and we all worked our tails off, sending out more boxes than we’d ever sent before, putting out the call to mutual aid groups and other organizations, stocking our sidewalk “Little Free Pantry” to the gills, crying and reminiscing and and making sure we did what needed to be done. I have never been so physically exhausted in my life, nor have I ever been more proud of a group of people who came together once a week to thoughtfully serve their community.

I have no idea how folks will get the food they need now, but I’m actively trying to bridge the gap for many of them. This scenario is a sad reminder to me that when we rely on systems like these, we will never get what we need in a sustainable way because the system will always find a way to center itself over the beings it was designed to serve. When we rely on people, we get creativity and care and things get done, but it’s always a precarious situation. The system can impose its will and shut down the ability of the people to do what they have been doing. And in systems like this, the inflection point is the worker – they are the one who carries the burden of both toeing the line that the system has created and working creatively to help the people they are trying to help. This is why teachers spend their own money on classroom supplies and work 80 hours a week while only getting paid for 40. It’s why we flexed to find ways to serve mutual aid groups and homeless folks even though we weren’t given any resources to do that work – because we as the workers knew it was important enough to us to figure it out, and as long as it didn’t ask the system for anything, they were willing to turn a blind eye. But even if they hadn’t shut us down, it was unsustainable. We were running out of resources – time, money, energy from volunteers – and the system wasn’t going to give us any more.

I am incredibly sad that this is the decision that was made, and also not at all surprised. When we continue to create systems that pretend to serve human beings but center themselves within capitalism and “business models,” this will always be the way it goes, eventually. When it becomes too hard or too expensive to continue serving people well and with dignity, the system will cut corners in order to spare itself. To be sure, I will take the lessons I’ve learned here – both about the system and about the potential of caring, committed workers – to my next endeavor, whatever that may be, with an eye toward finding better ways to help my community. Stay tuned.

PS – I DO count among my victories during my tenure at the food bank the fact that I was able to convince the agency to give every household a $50 gift card to a local grocery store inside their food delivery for the last two weeks we were open. This post from a few months ago details my thinking about this and why I wish, in all actuality, ALL food banks would close in favor of simply giving people money to purchase the food they need when they need it.

 

curving path with tall orange logs on either side with Japanese writing and a lantern hanging from the ceiling

Torii path with lantern at Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine. Photo by Basile Morin

Americans love a shortcut. I’m not sure how it became wedged in our culture so deeply, but there it is, and it plays out in so many different ways that end up hurting the collective.

It’s definitely a human trait to want to avoid the hard work and the arduous journey and find a way to leap right to a more comfortable place, but I think it’s important for us to assess the cost of these short-term fixes so we can determine whether or not they are actually helpful in the long run.

For months and months we’ve been pinning our hopes on a vaccine for Covid-19, hoping that it will release us from the new reality we’ve been living with masks and hand-washing and decreased opportunities to go to the movie theater and restaurants and have big celebrations with our beloveds. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but in the absence of other things we could have been doing to mitigate the pain and suffering so many people have endured in the meantime, it speaks to our overriding desire for instant gratification. While other countries have managed to strongly limit the spread of disease by supporting their citizens with basic needs and universal health care, we have been over here railing against the virus and the leaders who dare to make difficult choices for us all (without actually supporting individuals and communities as they implement those measures). We are here clamoring for a series of shots that will keep us from having to actually build communities that can withstand catastrophe.

But it turns out there really is no substitute for actually giving a shit about each other.

Time and time again we look for systemic solutions, policy changes, and “leaders” who will create innovative new technologies to serve the masses, all while disregarding the basic, bedrock fact that our American culture isn’t built on caring for each other and uplifting community.

A vaccine won’t save us. To date, while the vaccines that have been approved have shown to prevent vaccinated individuals from developing an illness from the virus (if they have both shots), it is completely unknown whether they will keep the vaccinated individual from carrying the virus and transmitting it to others. Meaning that, because there is no way every single individual in your vicinity will receive the vaccine for a number of reasons, if we are to prevent spread of the disease, we will still have to practice the same social distancing and protective measures we have been living with for most of 2020. And people who can’t have the vaccine because of their health status will be at increased risk the more that others go back to “business as usual,” forcing them to even more severely curtail their social activities.

It will take years to know what the effect of these vaccines is on individuals and the collective, so what are we going to do in the meantime? Looking to other countries whose culture is more about belonging to each other, we can learn how to mitigate some of the devastating effects of this disease on community. Much of the upset about small businesses closing has to do with people losing their ability to pay rent and eat with any sort of regularity. We can fix that. There is enough money. We have enough money to test people often and accurately, we have enough money to ensure that health care workers have the proper equipment. We have enough money to ensure that landlords and tenants are taken care of and nobody loses their home. We have the resources to feed and house every single person in this country while we wait to learn more about how best to develop medications to fight Covid, what effect vaccines will have, and why some people don’t get sick from this virus while others are impacted heavily.

It’s a choice. The choice isn’t between whether or not to put kids back in physical school buildings. It’s not a choice between the economy or individual health. It is a choice between doing the hard work of making sure that every single person is as cared for on a basic level as they can be and pretending that there is some magic bullet out there and all we have to do is find it.

There is no magic bullet. There is only us. And, I’ll say it again, there is no substitute for actually giving a shit about each other.