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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.

 

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.

image of a multicolored compass

Alvesgaspar, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Some people begin their year with a specific word in mind that grounds them and serves as a compass of sorts. It’s not something I’ve ever done with any regularity, and I doubt I’d have been able to really intuit one in January that would have been accurate in any way, but now that we are nearly at the end of this year, I can look back and see that most everything I did and thought about and experienced this year boils down to relationship.

It seems odd, given that most of my time has been spent without the physical presence of loved ones and the work I have done is remote and facilitated by technology. Neither of those things seems particularly conducive to creating relationship, but I have learned more about the power of connection this year and focused on the qualities of relationship that are most impactful more than I ever have in my life. I have spent time deepening my relationship to myself and trying to rebalance the wisdom I receive from my head with the wisdom held in my body through meditation and a rage ritual. I have created connection with local communities to offer assistance and I have witnessed the awesome power of mutual aid groups. I have considered how so many of our public systems are failing us and begun to realize that the only way to counter those failings is through relationship.

I joined with others across the globe every day at the same time for 30 minutes for 100 days in a row to say a lovingkindness meditation for all beings. I didn’t know the vast majority of the others at the beginning of the 100 days, but since then, we have formed virtual support groups to help each other with everything from motivation to get off the couch and shower to grieving the loss of loved ones with humor and grace. I joined a weekly Zoom meeting hosted by Charter for Compassion and Citizen Discourse that also gathers people from across the globe. Every Thursday we journal for a few minutes, have individual conversations about things like ritual, legacy, and what community means, and come together as a group to deepen our relationship to compassion and humanity. I have met people with whom I share text messages and emails and our connection is no less real and tangible because it was formed online.

The most recent conversation we had was around our own personal compass – what drives us, where are we headed. And while each of the individuals on the call had a different perspective and way of answering that question, we agreed in the end that the common thread for us all was connection of some sort. And because our conversations often delve into the philosophical, we also explored the notion of a compass. It occurred to me that it is important to note that a compass is useless in a vacuum – meaning that it only works within the context of the electromagnetic pull of something bigger, something grounding (in this case, the Earth). And so while each of us may have our own compass, the principle on which it exists is that we are all connected to something larger that helps guide us. We can, of course, choose to stick that compass in our pocket and go off on our own path, but the quality of guidance is always present and available to us. And because it is available to each and every one of us, we are necessarily connected, whether we acknowledge it or not.

I say often that human beings are designed to be in relationship. Our biological systems work more efficiently when we are in trusted relationships and suffer in isolation. Students who have supportive relationships with their teachers learn better. Elders who are ill heal faster and have less pain when they are surrounded by loved ones. So while I mourn the lack of physical contact with my beloveds and desperately miss the coffee dates and hiking adventures with friends, I have also deepened my definition of what relationship is – relationship to myself and my physical body, relationship with my community, relationship with people I’ve never met in person – and come to understand the power of letting those connections evolve over time. I have explored what it means to have healthy boundaries that are temporary in order to repair harms and what it looks like to shift my definition of a mother-child relationship as my daughters become young adults and want a different kind of bond with me that is no less elemental or meaningful than it ever was – it’s just different.

While there is much to be sad about this year – the loss of my mother and the missed adventures I had planned and the cancelled book tour among them – I can look back on the last 12 months and see what I have gained in stretching my understanding of this most basic need for connection and community in my life. Like the grounding of the Earth to my compass, relationship and connection are always available to me so long as I recognize them as an elemental part of my existence. Here’s to unexpected lessons that help us all thrive. May 2021 bring more wisdom and insight to us all.

Picture of a tall, slender, lit Christmas tree in a living room

This time of year always means I think about capitalism more than I normally do. And this year has been one where I have been more acutely aware of capitalism than ever in my life, so you might imagine that my brain is pretty full right now.

I love this time of year because I often spend it poking through local shops for hours, hoping to find fun, quirky little things to tuck inside my kids’ Christmas stockings. For some reason, over the years, stockings have become my ‘thing,’ and it often means that the contents spill outside of the knitted socks and have to be carried to the girls with two hands. As a kid, our stockings were filled with walnuts and hazelnuts (that we took great delight in using the nutcracker to shell and then discarded shortly afterward), mandarin oranges, and, on a good year, an entire book of Life Savers rolls. I have strayed far from that tradition, to be sure.

Whether it was designed cleverly or just worked out that way, there is a reason capitalism has deep hooks in us that take effort to remove. But for me, the first step in that unhooking is an honest evaluation of how capitalism is antithetical to health and well-being.

Screen shot of the Cliffhanger game on The Price is Right

As a system, capitalism was sold to us as something sustainable, and it is ridiculous that we believed it. There is no way anything can grow and grow without ever hitting a wall – it will either consume all of the resources around it or collapse on itself or both, which is what I think we are experiencing right now. We are led to believe that the stock market can keep hitting higher highs, that businesses can increase their profits year over year, and that we can make more money every year if we just work hard enough. Like any system, growth can happen to a point, but there is nothing that can grow forever, and human beings weren’t designed to grow and grow and grow without rest.

Capitalism is the opposite of health and well-being because it forces us to value things that are external – more shoes and clothes, a bigger paycheck, a new car every few years. But external values are things over which we have no control – we could get downsized or fired tomorrow, those things we buy can fall apart quickly, the housing market can explode so that we’re not able to afford our home anymore. Capitalism taps into our basic human need for security, but it doesn’t provide it – in fact, it keeps us constantly searching and believing that we will never truly be secure unless we are earning more and spending more. Capitalism also taps into our basic human need for autonomy, but that, too, is an illusion. Sure, we get to make choices about where we work and live and the things we buy, but only to a point, because under this system, we are never truly in charge of our own lives – not if the things we value are external.

Capitalism is also something that keeps us in fear. It relies on workers being expendable and interchangeable, which means that we as workers are always competing with each other ever so slightly more than we are cooperating. And because fear is a barrier to relationship, it means that we can’t ever hope to truly build strong, sustainable networks or communities under capitalism. Capitalism is threatened by unions (read: relationship), and relies on workers believing that they need to constantly fight to do better, be more visible, climb over their co-workers. It sells us the illusion that it’s possible to continually make more money, achieve more success, get a better position, but the slots at the top narrow so rapidly that it’s impossible for that to be reality.

Capitalism gave us disposability because it relies on it. Single-use items mean that we are constantly needing to purchase replacements. It’s not an accident that Apple comes out with a new version of the iPhone every single year, each with a slightly new set of features. That’s by design – businesses need us to want the newest thing in order to make their sales goals. Capitalism is just another one of the systems that has successfully adapted to center itself over time so that the most important thing is capitalism. It’s why we talk about “the economy” in every political debate, it’s why we fight to send our kids to a “good college” so they can get a “good job” that pays well enough for them to buy cars and homes and trips and clothes. It is why boards of directors are fearful of poor sales and offer dividends to shareholders. It is why wages are kept artificially low and we have no universal healthcare. Capitalism is so all-encompassing that non-profit organizations have bent to its rules, insurance companies are not in the business of taking care of people’s health but are vitally interested in their own profits, school systems have formed their curricula around the kinds of things that will ensure kids get into four-year colleges rather than focusing on learning skills and cultivating passions. There are many systems in this country that are powerful and broken, but capitalism is the one steering the ship, and we all just keep shoveling coal into the steam engine.

Two people walking together on a cobblestone path

Like all systems, I am reminded that the antidote to capitalism is relationship. When we can fight the urge to live in fear and build strong, connected communities, we can begin to release ourselves from the grip of capitalism. Capitalism is the reason so many people in the US are going hungry, and new systems (food banks) won’t fix it. If they could, they would have done so already. But relationship helps. The dozens of small, community-based mutual aid groups in my area alone that have mobilized to cook meals, deliver food, raise cash, and source items for people in need are combating food insecurity better and faster than bureaucracy ever could (even as they fight bureaucracy in order to do the work they do).

Building authentic relationships rooted in trust and love takes time, to be certain. It takes effort and a willingness to examine our fears and biases and tendency to see other people as competitors. We have to be willing to be a little bit afraid or at least a little uncomfortable, and forge ahead, knowing that relationship and community are what truly meet our basic human needs for safety, security, feeling valued, and having an impact. When we build communities whose values are intrinsic, we are necessarily reinforcing the belief that all of us are important, none of us is disposable, and that there is enough to go around so long as we cooperate. Living under capitalism means that millions of people go hungry while billions of pounds of food goes to waste. It means that business executives make and hoard more money than they could ever use while other people live on pennies a day. It means that workers spend dozens of hours a week doing jobs they hate because it is the only way they can feed their families and keep their health insurance.

Unions don’t threaten the health and well-being of companies or executives, they threaten to upset the imbalance of wealth between workers and executives. When the biggest argument against any sort of pay increase or new benefit for people is that it “costs too much,” we have become far too focused on money. If we are more concerned with the stock market rising or falling than we are about people living on the streets in cardboard boxes and the hours’ long lines at food banks, we have succumbed to the lure of capitalism to our detriment. It is true that money is necessary to survive, but only because we made it that way. It is possible to do things differently.

When we are in relationship with one another and really rooted in the values of community, dignity, respect, and safety for all of us, the values of capitalism begin to fall away. I don’t have to fear you or be in competition with you if I trust that our connection is about both of us being well and cared for. Systems like capitalism rely on hierarchies – someone has to be “in charge” and then there are layers of folks beneath that, all with an assigned ‘worth’ in the form of pay. Relationships suffer under hierarchies. If I think that I am more important or worthy than you, we will never have an equal, honest, loving relationship. But when we can build communities that acknowledge that we all have things to offer the group and that we all deserve to ask for support where and when we need it, there is no scarcity, there is trust, and there is safety.

Capitalism falls apart when we aren’t competing with each other for jobs, for goods and services. Capitalism falls apart when we acknowledge abundance. Communities thrive with a belief in abundance. The truth is, there is enough to go around, but we have built a world view that doesn’t acknowledge that. We have built economies that rely on scarcity to drive up the cost of goods so that those at the top of the hierarchy benefit, and when the cultural values are about having an abundance for yourself, the notion that any one of us could find ourselves rolling in piles of money or sitting in a house whose garage is full of more cars than we can drive is seductive. Even though the vast majority of us will never attain that, because we’ve been taught that that ideal is achievable if we just work hard enough, we hold out hope. But we all know people who work hard every day and are nowhere near owning their own home.

Capitalism is rooted in individualism, which means not only that we have to compete with each other, but that we feel as though our failures are our own and not the way the system is designed. We blame ourselves for not working hard enough, for not finding the right mentor, for not having the right college degree. We resolve to try harder, get more financially literate, get more connections on LinkedIn.

Ultimately, it is only in relationship where our most basic psychological needs are met. And in a world where the material goods are plenty, it is relationship that threatens capitalism the most. Talking to each other about our respective rates of pay, our experiences with toxic workplace culture, and our ideas for how to band together to create more support for all workers begins to erode the scarcity mentality. When we come together in relationship and our psychosocial needs are met, we might discover that buying more things isn’t really all that soothing after all. We might discover that the system is set up for the sake of the system and that it doesn’t really care about us or the environment. We begin to acknowledge that capitalism is designed to make us believe that there will never be enough, and we begin to realize that human beings can’t thrive in a system where we are forced to always strive for more and compete with each other more than we cooperate.

So while I will continue to carefully select gifts for my beloveds this time of year (and probably spend more money than I ought to), I will also do my part to build community, to strengthen relationships, and to help those around me acknowledge their worth outside of their employment or the size of their paycheck. I will fight against the tendency to value things that the system tells me I should value and I will put my energy toward dismantling this broken system that holds so many hostage and erodes our connections to each other.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are entrusted to each other’s care.

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

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

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.