April 15

14Clara is so so sick. Again. She has lost her faith. All she can do is suffer and endure. She doesn’t trust her body, or my love. Last night, in the fevered dark, she repeatedly, insistently, told me that I don’t love her. Not really. “You hate me because of what I do.” I assured her again and again that I heard her, that I am so sorry it feels that way, that I do love her so much and always. “It’s not true.” She would reply. “You don’t love me. You only love my sister. I’ve done a bad thing so you hate me.”

Marion Rose sent a message yesterday about our children translating from the universe for us. I look at Clara, fingers interlaced over her heart, wet cloth on her forehead. She asked to lay “just on my own” because I was behind her, trying to support her. She is so angry and sad. I don’t understand how she is looking at the world, and that is where I tend to go to try to understand messages. Maybe, though, that is one of these ways where I abandon my own perspective – disappear myself – in order to try to receive or interpret messages. If I do it Marion’s way … then what Clara says is to help me understand what I am feeling. (My urge is to capitalize that I, italicize it) Am I stuck in a feeling that the universe doesn’t love me? That my parents/partner/friends don’t love what I am doing or trying to do? I suppose, yes. It is part of what I was sharing with Holly yesterday, that I feel like a burden on the earth, on BIPOC communities, and yet, in my own community, where I belong, I struggle to be seen. I worry that people find me unkind or irritating, abrasive, overly intellectual, constantly political, impossible to relax around, hurtful, judgmental. I don’t know how to share my wants and needs from a place that draws people to me. I feel the race stuff so deeply, so personally. I truly am an abolitionist. But I feel performative – and afraid of being perceived that way – when I try to contact others around intersectionality, truth, reality. 

Clara kept saying, “That’s not true.” And in my exhaustion and undivided presence, I knew that partly what she was saying is that there is no way for me to convince her of my position. As long as she feels what she feels, that is what truth is for her. I couldn’t find a way to fully settle into what she was communicating – I said, “what makes you say that?” Because it was false for me. But how can we connect except to attend to what feels true to the other? Nolan can’t possibly see what I see, not having had any of the experiences I’ve had in the last 12 years that have brought me to this perspective. So then how could it be my job to influence him for the sake of the oppressed in this country who have no shot at shifting his truth to include or respect theirs? 

What is it? That sharing my truth would damage people? Our relationship? That it is too dark? Or, selfish? Is that what I fear? Or do I fear that my perspective comes from a desire to take up

No space

Or

Do

No harm

Are these really different?

 

 

April 6

22a

Unwrapped, unrolled the rug. Cut camellias from the squatter yard. Made the crudite tray, twice. Popped the popcorn, dressed it well. Put things away, wiped counters, swept. Greens to the bunnies. There is a sleepover birthday party happening right now, but I’m not in charge. I can hardly stand to be in the zone. So much goofy. So much chatter and bunch. A lot of small people I want to get to know, or care for, or who I am already attached to and want to protect. It’s just not that time of life. I can’t both be me and be in the mix … with them. Eleven! One sweet girl, close to my heart, who got the first evidence of her first cycle this very day. They are all over the map. Two of the ten-nearing-eleven-year-olds here are years out from that pivotal moment. “Close the door,” I say to them. “Write your name on your cup.” I know their names and I smile and ask them small, easy-to-answer questions. But I am just a shepard. I don’t speak sheep.

March 25

08aI want to come out here by saying that I am considering for myself how I can continue to show up in this group. I am at my limit in a lot of ways and especially, after our last meeting, I am struggling to maintain a sense of possibility around anti-racist work in the larger context. I will continue to do the work: it has been 7 years since Trayvon was killed, and going back is not an option. All the paths of my life have brought me to this. But for the first time in this journey, I find myself in the first loop on the Cycle of Empowerment: I am exhausted, and I am afraid. I don’t blame POC, of course. And maybe I feel this partially because I can no longer distance myself from white people in the way that I have. On the outside, I think most people who know me would locate me in the Collective Action area: I can say yes and give daily examples for each of the actions there. I have changed my daily life completely in the last two years to make this possible. On the inside, though, it is hard for me locate hope. It is hard for me to feel that anything will ever be enough. I can’t possibly crave comfort because it is so hard for me to feel it. In any given moment, I move toward discomfort, and drag my family and friends with me.

There is a temptation to justify myself by explaining what the last month, or the last year, has held – how fully immersed in whiteness; cultural, institutional, and personal racism; and trauma I am everyday. If there is anything I learned from years of watching social media interactions around racial justice, though, it is this: as a white woman, it is never helpful for me to center my experience in a public way when race and racism are what is being discussed. 

To an extent, this is why we have affinity groups: to lessen the harm my emotional self-centeredness may cause. 

As a long time meditation practitioner and source of compassionate support in many people’s lives, I can say with confidence that shutting down my (or your) emotional processes or shaming myself (or you) for how I (you) feel is a great way to feed white dominance, patriarchy, and capitalist manipulation. That said, there are more and less appropriate, responsible, aware, and authentic ways to be present to our responses, emotions, and urges. 

Which is I guess to say: when and how I show up to this group is my own work, my own concern. Like Angeline, I’m not sure I want to hang my evolving beliefs up somewhere and look at them everyday. I definitely considered not sharing any of this. I feel the risk of doing harm almost continuously, and I navigate the threats borne of my own conditioning as well as I can. But I think we all, often, consider not sharing. I think we all feel fear. And I benefit pretty much every time someone else shares. 

Old belief: The USA is a mostly safe, mostly free place, with deeply problematic politics and beautiful, dramatic, living land that supports me, physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually.

Current belief: The USA is a terror state, based on paternalistic racial and capitalist domination and exploitation, historically, presently, and internationally. My access to support through connection to the land is rooted in how I – as a educated, middle class white person – benefit from, or am protected from, the American practice of terrorizing people, animals, and plants. 

 

Old belief: People are basically good and kind and want to learn from and support each other. 

Current belief: People have the capacity to be kind, curious, and empathetic. Biologically, each human requires a huge amount of unconditional support from people experiencing connection, love, cultural authenticity and integrity, as well as stories, dances, songs that make sense of the chaos of emotional and metaphysical experience. When this support is not available, people are basically afraid, angry, and ignorant. 

 

Old belief: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Current belief: Healing is possible, but trauma and alienation alter the (inner and outer) landscape in ways that make healing less likely.

 

Old belief: The truth is inherently good, if painful.

Current belief: The truth is inherently neutral. Too much truth is trauma. Not enough is ignorance.

 

Old belief: Race is a mistaken mental image and can be altered with education.

Current belief: Race was born of colonialism, which was born of Capitalism, Patriarchy, Violence, and Trauma. All of these forms of division and hierarchy inform each other, and shape communities, which shape relationships between people, which literally shape the next generations. 

 

Old belief: History is in the past, but expresses itself in the present.

Current belief: Time is not linear. Time lives in the body. Trauma can be both buried and uncovered.

 

Old belief: Hope is a useful feeling that connects discomfort with action.

Current belief: Hope is a physiological belief that comfort can be accessed. 

 

Warring beliefs

  • Comfort is a feeling of being safe and held that we learn in our cells during gestation and infancy.
  • Comfort in white supremacy is like cheap sugar in Portland Public Schools: a substance used to manipulate, excite, control, and distract the masses. 

 

Old belief: BIPOC have access to a sort of righteous wisdom and deep joy born of not being co-opted by white dominance.

Current belief: I cannot predict the mental, emotional, or physiological state of any BIPOC based on my ideas of their life experience. 

 

Old belief: Industrial and institutional systems can be altered to benefit more people.

Current belief: Industrial and institutional systems put in place to create and maintain white dominance will by their nature morph to sustain white dominance. 

 

Old belief: Anti-racism work (intersectional feminism) makes more space for me to be me. Uplifting the least privileged uplifts us all.

Current belief: Sometimes, doing the work just feels like work. It turns relationships into work. It turns my life into a measurement: did I do enough work?

 

Old belief: Walking toward discomfort increases my opportunities to grow spiritually; I have both privilege and support; I can always dig deeper. 

Current belief: My limits are real. It is not morally responsible or spiritually developed to ignore them.

March 8

09aOh, the intersection of trauma and systematic oppression. 

It is hard to hear my students talk about the medications they are on. Increasing levels, loss of appetite, increased appetite, vomiting. Sleeplessness, nightmares, anxiety. The imperative to stay still! To tolerate long hours indoors with many children and few adults; to do what you are told to do: stay focussed, don’t skip class, don’t talk. When people scold you, don’t giggle, don’t run away, don’t talk back. They explain how hard it was to be good, and maybe the medication will make it easier. 

I ask if they have considered the possibility that nothing is wrong with them. 

J tells me about being tackled by this principal at his old school. He talks about the way they used to to talk to him, telling him that he would never graduate, that he was destined to be a bum and a drop out. They asked him, he says, the first time they met him, if he was in a gang. If I didn’t know better, I’d be shocked. He tells me about how ICE came to his door and – disrespectful! – came past him and took his step dad away by the arm – in front of his four year old son! Now his son is all messed up, he says, with autism. They try to talk to the step dad on the phone in Honduras and can hear gun shots. We don’t even talk to him now, Jaden sighs. 

M and the bug in his ear. 

N’s mother laughing about a story I was telling, as N seals himself inside his hoodie, laughing his laugh, almost falling off his chair, oblivious to social cues as to how to handle himself, and she says, “that is just one of those autism things, you know?” And I think: omg. Of course he is autistic. That is the most helpful. How did I not know? How the fuck did we get here?

A and E and D want to go to Wonderland, the penny arcade. Just the three of us, A insists. Who knows what E wants. She wants to be with her boyfriend, laying under her cat. D wants to be with J. But they would go. They could, maybe, have a day of just being young, together. I can see doing that. 

T, cursing at the perfect miniature snow person she’s sculpting out of playdough, says that after we spoke highly of her at parent teacher conferences, her dad cried. Because, yeah. Likely, no one at a school ever had before. 

J and J and T and S and V. They understand Explicit and Implicit. They see themes. I think they believe me (a little) when I say that we can understand ourselves and our world more deeply by thinking this way – by not only looking for meanings, but looking for how we construct meaning, together.

 

March 3

07REFLECT:  Catalog carefully the primary voices that informed you as a person and shaped your thoughts and values in these areas:

  • Your closest friends
  • Mentors or people you’ve looked to for guidance
  • Teachers/Bosses/Advisors who impacted your learning or career path
  • Authors of the books you’ve read in the last year

Comprehensively list them and note the racial identity of each. Once you’ve examined the primary voices in your life, connect back to the listening exercise from our second session and write a reflection about what you discovered through the examination of the primary voices in your life and post in the group.

***

Applying this lens to my memories of what I heard about race in my early years emphasizes what I already believe to be true about how I learned to be white and to recognize or relate to Blackness, which is that it was primarily non-verbal. My parents were strongly of the “everyone’s equal,” “colorblind” mold of relatively mobile, privileged, racially isolated, northern white families of their generation. Because I grew up in proximity to Native American communities, and my mom did work representing and selling their art, I was aware of our status as immigrants. This was furthered by my grandmother’s family bible with her primarily Irish genealogy laid out inside the front cover. When the idea of our “Irishness” was talked about, though, it never satisfied the yearning in me for meaning. I wonder now if the facts, without emotion, weren’t enough to capture my imagination, or feed my soul’s longing. 

All through my youth, I had a sense that what set Native people apart was their rich culture, connection to the land and its other inhabitants (which mattered a lot to my family and our community also) and understanding of where they came from. I don’t remember my mom sharing anything about the atrocities endured by these communities, or the complications inherent in their need to perform and sell their cultural heritage for whites in order to survive as artists, though I assume she understood some of this herself. There were several adults in my young life who were positioned to educate me more deeply about how Native people were supported and shaped by their cultures – a white guy, friend of my mother’s, who married and was inducted into the Blackfeet; and my sixth grade teacher, a white woman who spent the whole year educating us in the different practices of the NW Coast Native peoples, their homelands, and their art, including modern work of living artists. When I think now of how these two people communicated with me, there was a mixture of facts and emotion, an indication that there was beauty and meaning here for me, for us. I can’t think how exactly I understood this, but I could feel that though I could never be Native, knowing about Indigenous people and being near them was of benefit to my humanity. 

I contrast this in my memory with a total blank around the cultural context of Blackness. I loved Lamar Burton; my dad loved Teddy Pendergrass and The Doobie Brothers. I watched Sesame Street and saw the delight of those neighbors in their diverse world. And it helped form my sense that Blackness was something very distant. Not bad, but a sort of caricature: simple, flat. By the time I was in high school, dancing to hip hop, reading Zora Neale Hurston and Maya Angelou, my ability to listen without listening was laid down deep. Or, to say it better, to listen without reflecting. How tangled and hurtful that world seemed – so far from my own. 

I had a high school English teacher – the first Southern white person I ever knew (and one of the only, still) – who came to teach us straight from college when I was a junior. She was five years older than we were, full of urgency about things that made me roll my eyes at her obvious vulnerability. The combination of her accent, her professed feminism, and her lack of classroom management skills (she yelled at us, and cried) sparked in me a deep desire to distance myself at all costs. She had us read Absalom, Absalom, which shook me up, but not because of the opening it provided to notice whiteness – because of the intellectual modernity of the text, which I was primed to analyze. 

It’s true that there were no Black people anywhere near where I grew up, but I don’t think this can fully explain the disconnect. My guess is that the adults in my world could tolerate the way that Native stories made them into immigrants, but they couldn’t face the way that Blackness made them White. 

My parents and their friends did recognize and give some factual language to what was not good to do or be: Nixon, Reagan, segregation, overt racism, impoliteness. My father would tell me that for the years in his young childhood when he lived on the edge of hunger in Delaware, racism was very real. His father, he would say, was a racist. The tone with which he said this indicated that it was something to be ashamed of, but also a sort of antiquity – once common, no longer useful. I can recall, too, the awkwardness as he recited out loud some racist bit of language from his father – a sort of artifact for us kids – and laughed (from discomfort? Confusion? enjoyment?), while my mom made disapproving (and silencing) eyes at him across the table. There would be no further investigation or explanation, that much was clear. 

I was alerted in my group last time we met that I tend to interpret body language emotionally, and here above I’ve done that. The way that my mother created silence in my home was through body language: a briskness in gesture, pursing of the lips, sudden getting up to do a suddenly important household chore. Before this finality, there was a way of drawing back, gathering herself: limbs in, back straighter; or of reaching out with one hand to press the hand or thigh of the offending party, or with her eyes, a sudden purposeful coldness, lips pursed. 

I interpreted these gestures as warnings. They defined a threshold that was not safe to cross. To cross the line would mean disconnection.

I read yesterday in James Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers”: 

“Now all this enters the child’s consciousness much sooner than we as adults would like to think it does. As adults, we are easily fooled because we are so anxious to be fooled. But children are very different. Children, not yet aware that it is dangerous to look too deeply at anything, look at everything, look at each other, and draw their own conclusions.”

After this last meeting, I am looking back and seeing how it was almost like there was layer of “bad” white people who separated us from Black society. Nixon, people who voted for Nixon. Reagan, people who voted for Reagan. The backwards people who were named “racist,” that shameful, antiquated thing. In school, the difficulties of american history were easy to push off: slavery a problem of the South, colonialism a problem of the past. In each instance, the white people who were actually in contact with Blackness were made evil by it. I don’t think anyone said anything like this to me directly. But I was listening between the lines.

James Baldwin says that, “In order for me to live, I decided very early that some mistake had been made somewhere. I was not a “nigger” even though you called me one.” This feels so important to me. The Black teachers I’ve had through books in the last five years, by insisting on their own humanity, and on the practice of truth telling in this twisted system, have helped me as much as any spiritual teacher I’ve had. Claudia Rankine, James Baldwin, Rita Dove, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Roxane Gay – all have insisted, in the context of race, on being heard in their uniqueness, through emotion and fact. Like Angeline, I can feel both anger at and frustration with my parents and teachers for stunting my humanity by segregating my consciousness. But I also feel how untouchable it must have felt for them, how deeply they still fear their own disconnection, so that they flinch when I say the word “white.” 

My other major teachers in the last ten years have been children and their parents. I don’t know how to fit these people into the categories that Rebecca gave. I guess children are my mentors. Knowing a few Black babies and children intimately and others casually, and sharing the intimate work of growing and protecting and understanding children with their parents – Black, white, indigenous, mixed – has exposed so many of the dumb ideas I developed as a kid about difference and distance. When I miss my mountain home, my ten year old reminds me of how blessed we are to live in a place where there are black and brown people. And she is so right.

In a moment in a staff meeting last week, while a white colleague was speaking over a black colleague, I discovered myself getting physically tighter. I didn’t want to listen to her. I didn’t want to be associated with her behavior. And she reminded me very much of myself. I didn’t know, in the moment, quite how to intervene. I thought of what Rebecca shared about working through her motivation in the form of feelings and beliefs, and checking her thoughts, or ideas, against what we know about White Supremacy Culture, before going on to action. I vowed to stay with what I was noticing without doing anything for the moment. And the place where I was able to listen to my own communication, in that moment, was again in the area of body language. As I attuned to my own body, I knew that I was partly responding to the body language of my Black colleague who was being silenced – how withdrawn he looked: his chest low, his eyes down. He drew his hand slowly over his face. My white colleague leaned forward, her head reaching into the space in front of her body, her words a continuous tumble. I came back to my own form, seeking to open the space around my heart, to find a softer breath. I could feel the urge to go toward one of the them or the other – to get in between them, and protect him from her. 

This emotional response felt like white saviorism to me. And after the role-play in our last meeting, I am trying to think of ways to go toward my white colleague in a way that is not just about disarming her, but also about exposing my own process to her. It feels more humble if I am just sharing with her what I am working on around race, but I’m still not sure how to do that. I feel pretty solid, though, that giving her my mom’s patented ice eyes is not going to be the way forward!

I’m struggling with the sense that this colleague (the white one) is somehow my “responsibility.” I for sure believe “if not me, who?” And “if not now, when?” I can find a way to approach her with compassion and try to start a race conversation, without making it about her at first. But part of my struggle is that my practice shows me quickly how it isn’t about her. As soon as I get involved, it is about me. What I see, what I feel, my history, my worry. Yes, I see how much work she has to do – like I have so much work to do – and she will keep doing harm, not out of racism, really, just because her undone work – her personal work – keeps her from being present to her own humanity. And in the context of white dominance that results in her undermining his. But here I do not feel superior, or somehow like a mentor. I feel reflected in the world around me. 

Feb 25

12

09

I lay in bed with Zelda: same. I wondered about her earlier cheerful complaint about the 5:2 ratio that is so damn firm in our society. We are chased, it is true. I feel the slam of the next day coming quickly to catch the tail of this one, to keep the mouse from ever running free. I lament it for myself and more so, but quietly, tightly, regretfully, for them. I seek to name it the season – the lagging end of the coldest curve, short days, so little news from the earth. I look ahead at how long still to the equinox. And them, I feel the possibility of letting the narrative go. My breath eases the release; Z eases along with me. We are changing. Many ways, many days. Many moments, many chances to open.

This weekend was walking on Tabor, wet with Jeff after a surprise snack in the van, chatting. Jazz and wine and snacks with Kris and Aubrey. Collapse with Jeff, sex in the morning with his face in my breasts, jacking himself off into my bright, undone rose, petals spread. A quick and marvelous market. A failed meeting with Margaret, a long, meandering meeting with Wendy, a tea, really – letting it be soft: no one in charge, peers, with different skill sets. Holly. Dora. A little cooking: broth on, tortilla, dinner for Cynthia. Lumpy pool mission of willingness, acquiescence: I never take Zelda and a friend somewhere when they ask anymore. Dinner of white bean, celery, celery root soup, kielbasa. Gratefully to bed with children tucked in theirs. Then morning: bran muffins, peach butter, purple kraut. Cleaning. Chatter, play. A chapter snatched of this or that. Sorting and sifting piles, bleeding the heartache of the world out between my legs. Too many checkings of email and instagram. A shower with Clara, washing and braiding her silky, impossibly bright hair. Off to Wendy’s for the second time, to roll in the ocean with four women on the floor: growing our own forms out of the mystery of sound, impulse, joining, invocation, replication, invagination… primitive streak, nodochord, mesenchyme, ectoderm, endoderm, neural tube, yolk sac. Out the door in a daze with Suniti, talking, sandwiches and drinks, Melange. And all, all through: race. Intimacy, white supremacy, self-awareness, gender, tenderness, boundary, transparency. The vibration between the story the nervous system tells when it finally finds out … and the return to what was true before there was a need for a story – and back again. 

I woke in pain from the feeling of missing my children already. I made space for my resistance to the system we play our parts in. I made space for my regret at not knowing how to connect to them in small pieces, or not knowing how to let it be enough, or not knowing how to be present to the enough that there is, instead of being sucked away into phone-land, where the bytes are smaller and more bite-sized. And then I allowed for the feeling itself, of just wanting to touch, to turn toward, to nuzzle and pause.

Today, I worked with Riley, André, Kirsten, Emalee. I talked implicit, explicit, evidence, America, contrast, summary. How do you know? What makes you think that? I talked with Madison: my truth is to seek integration. Admin and teachers don’t get enough opportunities to be real together about shared and contrasting goals. What one small thing can we do, to begin, to create opportunities to vision together?

 

Feb 6

0401

I wish I could write better about school. J whispering in my ear: “I am feeling really emotional right now and I could cry. I feel like I could cry but I don’t want anyone to know. But I want to tell you. It’s intense. I’m sweating.” He’s wide eyed, on edge, attuned – because of a poem he wrote. Then, minutes later, I, writing down her email, talking with me about her poetry, food, a project. “I appreciate you, Devon.” Then, DA. Working gradually through his essay, bit by bit, diligently bringing his thoughts to light and pinning them bloodily to the page. Yawning, yawning. Throughout, D, talking to me all day long, interrupting with her random thoughts. Where did her finished product go? Where will I hang it? 

When Gay keeps approaching me, while the kids are right there and she could just join them, and asking: “So, what else can I do?” Is it that I should give her the chores of soup making? So that I can sit down? Is she genuinely asking me because she doesn’t know how to join? Or is she asking me to give her jobs so that she doesn’t have to join? Let’s assume the former? Why is it hard for me to see that in the moment?

Driving to school this morning I was listening to the Aires EA astrocast. What was it that she was saying? It all felt very connected to whiteness. I felt the alignment of the work we are being encouraged to do by Rebecca: set down the shield of whiteness and just say how you feel, as though your feelings are the same size as everyone else’s and your irritation and disappointment are just the same as anyone’s… 

Attending to my own nervous system in this way: how am I being tricked? What feeling motivates the grasping? Why? This is yoga…

Noticed my desire to be busy, judgmental, invasive around Z and Ab’s convo about friends with Holly. I could hear Z’s voice so well, taking over, rising, reclaiming the space. I could feel the hitch in me, the catch. Learning from her is the same as learning from Gay. They are to point me back to me. They are not for me to try to change. I am blessed to have these wonderful mirrors, and these wonderful, beloved bodies who stand behind the mirrors, waiting for me to stop seeing myself and just love them. 

I saw Destiney today sharing, being open with her process. I want to emulate that. 

 

Feb 3

04

06Reading The Biology of Belief by Bruce Lipton. Learning (for the first time!?) about Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck. Learning the New Biology. A fantasy ticking along in the background: being a doctor of the kind I’ve always relied upon. Collecting understanding. Studying bodies. Contributing in my way to the communal, collective, cooperative, aware understanding of life. 

Stock burbling and popping on the stove. Oranges in an orange bowl. Rita Dove, a book called Aware by Dan Siegel, and LaRose by beloved Louise E. Empty coffee cup. Wet road. 

Jeff sick upstairs. Girls still asleep. Why am I not fevered? The puzzle of biology, immunity, each cause arising and falling away, each “effect” equally complex, transitory, shimmering with variables. 

There is something spoiled about a bucket list, but dreams tell so much…

  • Studying BMC in Lorane with Amy
  • Being with children, supporting parents
  • Cadaver dissection
  • Living walking distance to a wild place
  • Growing more and more of my own food, space for a real compost pile, flowers
  • Knitting myself a sweater
  • Improving my spanish and using it
  • Caring for my mother in her old age
  • Ever deepening embodied presence with life
  • A longer stretch at Great Vow
  • Supportive movement practices
  • Women who inspire me and love me
  • A medium format camera, a flash automatic camera
  • Activism around seed, water and land sovereignty
  • A vision of equity that begins with me, is deeply spiritual, informs everything and is ever evolving

Oct 29, 2018

11

After writing to Holly, and feeling my own sick, puzzled spirit turning, crumpling the covers of my hiding … I went to bed last night to read. In Refuge, Terry Tempest’s family is preparing for her mother’s death. The lake is over the bird refuge, and Christmas has just past. 

“We each spoke of our love for Mother, and she gently said, ‘I am sorry I cannot be with your feelings. It is different for me.’ She did not elaborate”

I quickly folded the upper corner, then read the words over until I was deeply sure of their phrasing. Then I closed my eyes and rested the book on my chest. 

I am sorry I cannot be with your feelings. It is different for me. I am sorry I cannot be with your feelings. It is different for me. I am sorry I cannot be with your feelings. It is different for me. 

Reading to Clara with Zelda by my side, squirming for scratches. In My New Blanket, a refugee girl is viscerally shocked by the foreignness of her new world. She says that the cold waterfall of strange sounds makes her feel like she is not herself. 

Which is a way to name the murk of what I feel within: a rearranging, an awkward formality, a steady state of threat. 

I long for my outside clothes. To be dirty. 

And yet, I do not long for other things I knew I had to step away from: the reply-all emails about ginger cookies for the kindergarten classroom; the meaningless naming of yoga classes; the laundry cycle. 

I grieved the books that I stacked by the door to return: 60 books or so that represent just the very most recent turning of the wheel – wonderful worlds brought home, discovered, tested, integrated, released or cherished … It doesn’t make sense, to do a bad job of something that used to integrate so fluidly into my weeks and days. And yet, as Clara and Z and I read … I grieve. Not for the concept, but for the experience. Their limbic systems ringing with the same tone as mine; our minds working on the same story, each in her own layer. Our ears open to the same sounds … together. 

I question: do other people want this version of togetherness, that I love? Is this what Natasha means about my expectations staying the same regardless of the environment? That I still want this, or seem to ask for it – when it is not possible. When it is not appropriate. 

This is part of what I was writing to Holly: no one is with me there, so I am constantly reminded to be with myself. A boundary I might never have noticed in my old work, where people are working and willing to be with. But. The height of a good yoga class, or afternoon in Nature with the kids, or marching chat with a friend, or meditation, or a good book, or even the grind of trying to make these fleshy feelings find their place on the page – is FLOW. Growth toward being in the correspondence between intention and communication, awareness and action. 

No one waiting for it to be over. 

Renee says now is a time to open the doors to the little room where I have planned my future, and air out the dusty assumptions that I learned to breathe when I was small. Imagine the world from here – from where you are now and what you know – what your children know – about what is possible. That means imagine from the center of a growing city. And I am resisting that with every breath. 

Where else could I be more radical? Why must everything get thrown to the wind at once? I still feel that resistant, resilient duality. And yet even as I try to name it, I undercut my thoughts. Privilege is blind by its nature. Is it true that I only perceive my choices?

I ask myself to be brave, and am ashamed by the idea of not being brave enough. Of course these go hand in hand.

 

Jan 26, 2019

12I went on Zen meditation retreat for four days of silence the second weekend of January. Silence, in this context, is protected by not speaking, but also by avoiding communication through gesture or eye contact. The Zen form is firm but not punishing. We join our voices in chanting and support each other physically by sharing food, chores, and meditation. Breaking silence does happen, sometimes necessarily and sometimes accidentally. There are no punishments. There is just a return to the form.

During this seshin, I noticed that each time I was tempted to break silence it came from a idea that I could help someone else. Maybe another guest didn’t know where a pan went in the kitchen during clean up, or I noticed someone was breaking another aspect of the form unintentionally. Maybe they had mud on their shoes and were making marks on the floor. Maybe the coffee ran out and they didn’t know how to get more. In the shelter of a vow of silence, I allowed these impulses to pile up. I had the time to notice myself wanting to become involved in someone else’s practice, wanting to alter it. I could relax with the instruction that I be responsible only for my own actions. Underneath impulses not indulged, emotions and body sensations revealed themselves in patterns: tissue rhythms of energetic involvement that I projected on other people in the present but, with time to unfurl, revealed themselves as recitations or reverberations from deep in my identity. Why did I want to get involved with other people when I had come explicitly to care for myself? What is this urge to help that arises stubbornly within me? What is the pattern revealing?

At the end of the retreat, we shared in a circle about our experiences. I wanted to speak about whiteness because the retreat attendees were overwhelmingly white, the ordained and residents were all white but for one young woman of Japanese descent, and I recognize whiteness operating in the – in this case, I believe, condoned and respectful – borrowing and adaptation of another, dominated, culture’s spiritual and ritualistic heritage. 

I wanted to speak about whiteness because it is my spiritual obligation. And I wanted to because it is so tempting not to. 

As each person shared, though, I came to be aware of a pattern of not being able to focus fully on what they were saying because of how I was internally adapting what I was going to say about whiteness. In a sense, I was learning about the people in the circle with me for the first time, and as I did so, I was, almost unconsciously, adjusting my pitch to the audience. I was looking to “help” them. 

Sanzen is the name for one on one conference during retreat with the head teacher, in which the vow of silence is lifted. On the third day, I was called for Sanzen with Chozen Bays, one of the heads of the monastery, a white woman, a mother, and pediatrician who, before retirement, worked primarily with children with developmental trauma due to abuse and neglect. Although I had shared practice with Chozen before, we had never spoken. In her company in the little Sanzen hut, I was immediately washed in compassion and patience. I told this Dharma-grandmother about how actively my mind was revisiting and elaborating on the brokenness of the world; the pain produced by racist systems and institutions: our educational and justice systems especially, and how they shape the experiences and self-stories of our youth… and how I might interrupt or alter conditions at the school where I work, in my childrens’ schools, in the district. As I spoke, I felt how this doomsday-ing and strategizing was progressively hardening my identity and my habitual reactivity. Sitting on my cushion, I was not participating in change. I was reinforcing my image of the world as a place that needed Me, needed My Help. I was staying safe. I couldn’t rest into myself in tenderness, or even spend time with my grief or fear or confusion because my mental activity was to separate myself from the suffering I was trying to “solve.”

I think the urge to try to help is a natural human one. And, in me, I can feel how it has been fed by karma, gender conditioning, small town life, my mom – all imbued with, all supporting, white dominance. I believe we as humans can help each other as equals. But. I learned and adapted to perceive needs in others while ignoring those needs in myself so that I could be necessary to others – and also so I could be superior to them. 

There are many threads at work here that I can’t fully lay out, even for myself. The risk of spiritual bypassing rubs shoulders with the urge to white saviorism. They reach toward each other from the poles and threaten to bury the shimmering possibility of authentic, heart-centered involvement. 

This covering happens so easily. I can give so many examples. Specific stories from my childhood and youth: times where the only way to make a bridge to a community that was marginalized seemed to be to ‘help.’ This was also true in spaces where I was managing my own feelings of inferiority: in a community based around serving wealth, my people were always ‘the help.’ And if I wasn’t – I was ashamed not to be. These days, I recognize this pattern in myself as strongly aligned with what it is to be a certain kind of white woman, a first daughter, a child of the rising middle class. Does this mean I am not inherently helpful? Everyone is inherently helpful. 

So here is where I out myself in this thread: even here, as I read others’ questions about weaponizing whiteness, I felt activated. I must help! Which meant I was feeling tempted to urgently try to alleviate the discomfort of my fellow white women with my individual prowess with the written word. From this place, as a helper, I get to distance myself, to feel safe and superior, while also being a good white woman doing her race work. 

In this activation, though, I can no longer feel safe or superior. I feel aware of a trigger. Puzzled. I seek to pause.

So, for a while, days, I just hung out with that. I admit, it does slow things down. I hung out with feelings of being threatened, of being the only one, of not doing enough. No one else needs to hang out with these feelings for me. They are mine to hold. 

And then, from a place of sharing where I am in my process, I wrote this:

On the deepest level, we all seek safety. It is our biological imperative. As infants and small children, we seek safety through belonging in our families and communities. As we grow, we must balance self-definition, agency, and safety. Usually, this involves adapting our primal safety strategies into integrated, externalized habits – pieces of identity. This happens on all kinds of levels. Centering race, I want to say that we have all sought ways to stay safe in the secretive, savage culture that supports and perpetuates white dominance. It is savage because of all the lives it is willing to sacrifice; it is secretive because it thrives through lies, projection, and obfuscation. As white people, we actually have a shot at being physically safe in this system. But as humans, we can feel the humming danger of a culture that systematically excludes, abuses, suppresses, and mocks the other cultures it comes into contact with. As animals, we unconsciously know that our fundamental biological vulnerabilities – sex, love, death – are sources of shame in the dominant paradigm of whiteness. To stay safe – both in an external sense, by fitting in, and in an internal sense, by protecting ourselves from painful awareness – we shape our identities to ignore the savagery by keeping the secrets, even from ourselves.

If modern, Northern, liberal whiteness is largely about dominating without acknowledging our dominance, then maintaining the sacrament of secrecy is essential. As white people, our safety strategies get triggered when there is a risk of the secret being exposed – in any way, by anyone. This is how I feel weaponizing happen: when a threat to white culture activates body systems that make me feel personally threatened. Unconsciously, I respond to the threat by employing safety strategies that I developed to tolerate and manage my own dominance by the same culture of whiteness that I am co-opted to uphold. It doesn’t matter to my unconscious if I am seeking to interrupt the system, as when Rebecca sought to protect her Black sons from racist interventions at school, or when Angeline felt the impulse to somehow alter the conversation around a girl’s hair in the school office. As a white person, when I act from a place of feeling threatened, whether I know it or not, I act in collusion with a culture of white dominance. 

This is why it makes so much sense to me when Rebecca talks about doing everything we can to avoid running this neurological pattern again and again once we begin to realize all it is tied to. 

In Sanzen, Chozen told me she was glad that I wished to help. She said she hoped I never lose that wish. And, she said, “we have to allow ourselves to see why. So that we aren’t motivated unconsciously. So that we’re not out of control. We have to bring the feelings up to consciousness. That doesn’t mean we stop helping. It means we don’t help others to try to save ourselves.”

For me, this is the spiritual work that I get to access because of allowing the dark secrets of whiteness into my conscious mind. I get to be more compassionate to my small self, by seeing how she learned to help from a place of fragility instead of from a place of strength. And I get to untie my experience of other people – and other cultures – from my need for my identity to be secure.

I did share about race in the closing circle on retreat. I said that I am becoming more present to the ways that I hide in helping behaviors, and how I am encouraged to do so by the white people around me. I said that I am beginning to feel how helping people from a place of superiority or distance is harmful and erasive. In the Zen tradition, we chant the Bodhisattva vow, which begins: “Beings are numberless, I vow to free them.” I learned from one of my teachers to add “From Myself” to the end of this vow. For me, unlearning white dominance through self-compassion and accountability is an essential aspect of upholding this promise.