The East Side of Town

November 5, 2018

Uncensored by Zachary Wood – never has a book spoken so deeply to my love of argument, and faith in it as a means of change.  How this man became driven to engage in difficult conversations at a young age is stunning.

UncensoredThe poor quality of our public discourse worries me.  Often political and moral debate ignores the dangerous kernels of truth in the opposing side.  Those kernels grow in people’s psyches, uncontested under a cloak of secrecy because we are afraid to discuss them. They fester and drive the horrid beliefs we never seem to eradicate.  This man’s relentless pursuit of debate and sound argument to combat destructive ideas embodies the power of intellectual discourse.  He is committed to understanding his opposition as a fellow human being.

In 1997, a close friend of mine was murdered in her home.  The crime remained unsolved, and baffled all who knew her and touched that investigation.  Last week, an arrest was made for the first time, based on a DNA match.

While still digesting this unexpected milestone, I saw The Hate You Give with my three teenagers. It depicts well how we apply the simplest explanations to the most complex problems, assume victims are culpable in their abuse, and fail to acknowledge suffering because we cannot handle the discomfort it stirs in us.

Over two decades ago, the shock and grief from my friend’s murder rewired my brain and changed my life, and my experience is only a fraction of the trauma inflicted on her family.  I did not find her in that state or witness the event. I had no reason to fear for my safety, though I did because the unknowns were so frightening.  My experience pales in comparison to living in an environment plagued by violence, fear, poverty and desperation. My trauma was nestled in a privileged existence, and I still walked around in a fog of grief and shock for the next two years.

With sudden access to a suspect’s name and face this week, I could not stop staring at the image.  Who was this guy and how did he come to be in her home that night?  What was his story that he could be capable of such violence?  Why her? It is just a photo, a mug shot even.  In it I see a dejected and sad man – not what I expected. Then I am trying to extract from a single photo answers that may never come.

Our social and justice systems sit entirely on the notion that violent crime comes from evil. “Evil” is a fantastic, unmeasurable scapegoat for all we hate and feel powerless to change. We have no public systematic understanding of mental illness, trauma and suffering as root causes – not for a hardened criminal, and not for a deranged president.  We throw violent criminals in prison, a hot bed of trauma, suffering and human degradation.  We have the opportunity to study their cases, interview them, provide mental health services to inform interventions in communities, but we don’t.  We could focus on rehabilitation, but we don’t.  We throw away the key with proud vindication, and sleep softly in our safe cocoons.

Don’t get me wrong.  Assuming this man is guilty, I want him in prison.  I want anyone removed from society who poses a threat.  But his incarceration will not bring her back.  Somewhere there are kids who will become like him one day, whatever “like him” means.  When are we going to work toward prevention on a massive scale?

Zachary Wood is committed to having uncomfortable conversations, and there is nothing more uncomfortable than viewing our worst enemy as a human being.  Once we dehumanize those we oppose, our delusion prevents us from understanding the problems we need to solve.

In the midst of processing all this, a friend of mine messaged me to proudly share having voted early, right down the legalize cannabis party line.  If you review the Minnesota ballot for Tuesday, you’ll notice multiple party names reflecting the legalize cannabis sentiment.  It is not a party line.  It is a mishmash of petulant, disjointed distractors.

My friend believes his vote will contribute to the dismantling of the two party system.  It is interesting to me that third party candidate history has the most impact on elections across the time in which we have become increasingly polarized, and yet too many believe voting for a party they know can’t win is the path to meaningful change.

Many people believe we should burn the system to the ground and rebuild it better.  In this climate, how could we possibly agree on how to rebuild it, and how long would that take?  This mentality turns a blind eye to how divided we are, and the significant risk a non-functioning government poses to the US.   To lean on simple answers and ignore the profound complexity of our government is irresponsible ignorance.

Want to dismantle the two party system? Reconstruct it from within rather than throw pebbles at the structure holding it up.  Consider a compelling argument for the impossibility of that effort, and more strategic steps to take.

Don’t throw away your vote out of exasperation.  People are suffering who don’t have the luxury of choice that you do.

Whatever your vote or your beliefs about where we should go from here, I hope you’ll consider the humanity of your opponent and the suffering in this country greater than your own. I hope you’ll consider the immediate impact of who is in office.  I hope you’ll go to The East Side of Town and see what is needed beyond yourself.

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A Culture of Toughness

October 16, 2018

Last spring I had a whim.  I shared it with a friend, and it became a thing.  Somerset Maugham once said, “Every production of an artist should be the expression of an adventure of his soul.”  That is certainly the case for me on this journey.

My whim became Hard for the Money: Stories of Women, Work & Satisfaction, an evening of stories at The Parkway Theater in Minneapolis on October 9, 2018.  My comments wrapped a frame around the stories of 10 women.  Those amazing stories are not shared here because they are not my stories to share.

Sorry.  I guess you just had to be there.

But I had some things to say, and those things are here in three parts.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Meet the cast of Hard for the Money, and come hear their stories at The Parkway Theater Tuesday, October 9!

ROSEANNE CHENG is a teacher, mother of two, and author of two award-winning young adult novels, The Take Back of Lincoln Junior High and Edge the Bare Garden. She is the marketing director at Wise Ink Creative Publishing, where she helps authors share their stories with the world. Find her at teachablelit.com.

Roseanne Cheng

KHADIJAH COOPER is a stand-up comedian and co-producer of POC-People of Comedy, an inclusive showcase featuring the best comics in the Twin Cities (next show Nov 2 at Sisyphus Brewing!). Her high energy comedy and warm self-confidence made her a finalist in the 2018 House of Comedy Funniest Person with a Day Job Contest. She is also an adolescent sex educator and program coordinator at the Annex Teen Clinic, providing education and clinical services to youth all over the twin cities. Find her on Instagram at myblackisbeautiful_kdijah.

Khadijah Cooper

DAJON FERRELL is a Resiliency Coach and speaker with a passion for helping people live their best lives ever, in each moment. Her 13-year military career led her to her current journey of teaching other veterans, and she will soon be working with fellow soul-centered light workers and changemakers, after finding a common thread of determined souls committed to service. She has taught for the Department of Veteran Affairs and spoken at conferences for entrepreneurs and veterans. Her voice has also been featured on the Huffington Post, along with being a published author in the ‘Invisible Thread’ and ‘365 Days of Angel Prayers.’

Dajon Ferrell

LISA HARRIS is an author, poet, speaker, the founder of Fashion Meets Poetry and the visionary behind the brand, Unveiled Beauty. With Unveiled Beauty, Lisa has created multiple platforms for the every day woman to share her story of courage and strength. She launched her work in the women’s empowerment space in 2017 after publishing her first book, Unveiled Beauty: Handwritten Stories From a Poetic Heart (released: September 2016). Prior to, Lisa spent +18 years in corporate retail buying, strategy and product development for Fortune 50 companies. Today, Lisa’s goal is to provide opportunities for women to be heard and to demonstrate their Beauty + Bravery. More details and future events at www.fashionmeetspoetry.com Facebook: Fashion Meets Poetry

Lisa Harris

LESLIE JACKSON embraces challenges and feels they are learning experiences to mold her into a better person. She spends her leisure time racing her car on the dirt track, driving her motorcycle, or just hanging out with her Grandkids. As Leslie continues to emerge as a butterfly, she has recently started her modeling and acting career. You can find her on Instagram @lesliejacksonmodel

Leslie Jackson

COLLEEN KRUSE is a humorist and storyteller. She has appeared on HBO, VH1, Comedy Central and A&E.

Colleen Kruse

AUTUMN LEE is a vibration raiser and a merriment maker. She is a wielder of light and love. As a devoted believer in magic, moments, and miracles, she passionately subscribes to hope, helping, and healing all of humanity. Whether picture clicking, acting, modeling, teaching or writing, Autumn is all in with big energy and big hugs. She is a joy antenna that channels the very best in all of us. Like success scaffolding, Autumn’s expertise is ensuring every human is seen, valued, and heard. Autumn is currently working on book elevating the stories and regal images of drag humans. You can learn more about Autumn at www.theautumnlee.com and follow her on instagram at @autumnleestudios

Autumn_Lee

DR. CLAUDIA MAY is a storyteller, author, poet, educator, spiritual director, children’s book author, consultant, and professor. As Program Director and Associate Professor of Reconciliation Studies at Bethel University, St. Paul, MN, she considers it a privilege to ponder the sacred stories of others, believing we can glean much wisdom from learning from the lives of those we encounter.  Her children’s picture book, a three-movement poem entitled When I Fly With Papa, explores how children and adults can co-create a liberating and emotionally transparent relationship with God. The central character in this book is a 7-year-old black girl called Winnie. When I Fly With Papa can be purchased at www.claudiamay.org.uk, where you will find further information about Dr. May’s work.

Claudia May

AMY QUALE is a start-up owner, thought leader, dream maker, and speaker. She began her career in book publishing in editing and production more than a decade ago, and has worked with large and small presses of all flavors. She went on to co-found Wise Ink as a blog in 2012 and Wise Ink Creative Publishing in 2013, where she collaborates with purpose-driven human beings to build books with soul. Amy has a master’s degree in English, for which she wrote her thesis on Fifty Shades of Grey and the paradox of female sexual empowerment with female oppression as it lives in the romance genre and in life in general (side note: her life only mirrors Anastasia Steele’s in that she’s a real-life English major who runs her own publishing house). She lives in the Twin Cities with her family and sweet-‘n’-sassy English cocker spaniel.

283_WiseInkHeadshots2017

CARI TAYLOR-CARLSON has been a free-lance writer since 1985, publishing her first book in 1990. Her love of hiking, travel, and adventure culminates in her seventh and most recent book, Life on the Loose, her memoir of running her adventure hiking company Venture West. For over 32 years she has led eager hiking groups by trail, canoe and kayak through experiences from Michigan to Nepal. She currently reviews restaurants for Urban Milwaukee and is working on a second memoir.

Cari Taylor-Carlson

Hard for the Money

July 21, 2018

photo Hard for the Money banner landscape for webAs those close to me know, I’ve spent the last few months creating a storytelling show around the theme of women and work.  Hard for the Money: Stories of Women, Work & Satisfaction will be at The Parkway Theater in Minneapolis the evening of Tuesday, October 9.  It is already one of the most exciting and gratifying things I’ve done.  “Women” in this context is anyone who identifies as or whose work life has included being perceived as a woman in a meaningful way.

Ticket sales will begin in mid-August and 25% of our net proceeds will go to benefit Dress for Success Twin Cities.  More detail about their amazing work and why we want to support this non-profit will be posted in the near future.

Auditions are happening and we are so grateful to everyone who has or soon will share their stories with us.  We are still accepting submissions through July 31.  Please consider sharing your story.  If you know anyone who might want to share theirs, please spread the word.  Because this event is intended to amplify the voices of a wide variety of people, and Minnesota is more diverse than our Sven and Ole jokes would indicate, we especially encourage anyone who feels their story is not seen in the mainstream.

Have an inkling to join us, but not sure where to start?  Have questions before making a submission?  Contact me at sally_vardaman_johnson@yahoo.com.

“There is no greater agony than bearing

an untold story inside you.”

– Maya Angelou

March 24, 2018

March 25, 2018

I had fully planned to drag my kids out to march yesterday in the cold Minnesota temps.  Between the school musical, History Day, basketball practice and a funeral, that didn’t happen.  But much of what I saw yesterday gave me hope for the future…

At 8:15am I walked up to Roosevelt High School, where the district wide Minneapolis Public Schools History Day competition was held.   A woman just ahead of me was carrying six display boards, not a small load.  As I held the door for her I commented that she must be a teacher if she was carting that many projects.  Yes, she confirmed.  Her kids were taking the bus and it was windy.  She wanted them to only focus on getting there on time, not keeping their hard work safe on the journey.  I can tell you from my own three kids’ history day experiences, it was that teacher who has kept those kids on track for the last 3 months.

History Day allows for many media forms: exhibit boards, documentaries, websites, performances, papers – the gamut.  This year’s theme is Conflict and Compromise.  I cannot think of a more perfect frame for historical events, because that is how change happens.

One middle school student in particular was eager to make sure I knew the experience of gays and lesbians during the holocaust.  She wasn’t trying to impress we.  She was determined to educate me.

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So many stories we know of just a little bit.  So many stories I’ve never heard.  Did you know about The Love Canal.  I didn’t.  Look at all these projects…

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My kids have spent the last many weeks preparing for their school musical, benefitting from hours of time from generous artists, teachers, parents and fellow classmates, learning to tell a powerful story of self-acceptance and decency through song and humor. 

This is what good education looks like.  Giving students the tools to know who we are, how we got here, and how we can be better.  In a world of social media and clickbait, teachers inspiring kids to dig deep into the stories of our ugliest times and greatest triumphs – that is education.

So when those students take to the streets to fight for a safe education environment, what does it say that the NRA mocks them as only being influenced by Hollywood and wealthy snowflake liberals? These kids didn’t get their critical thinking from Hollywood.  Hollywood may give them empathy through the power of story, but Hollywood also makes a lot of money through the glorification of violence.  How can the NRA mock such a source of wealth not unlike their own? Who of the NRA is afraid for their own life in the course of their day to day routine?  How can they be so desensitized to this climate, and their place in it?

No, these kids were taught critical thinking by the kind of teacher that gets up at 6am on a cold Saturday and lovingly hauls her students’ projects so their hard work can be rewarded – so they can have conversations about our history and the lessons we must learn, so they can enjoy the fruits of their passion for storytelling alongside their vast intellectual capability.

I reposted this from someone else on Instagram today, knowing my own middle school aged kids would see it.  When I became a parent, I never fathomed such an exchange with my children.  I both applaud its wit and ache for its reality.  How is gun control even a debate?

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Look at the diverse groups fighting for change.  What does it say that the sole opposition is the NRA and the GOP, who have a financial interest in their resistance?  Kids are assessing our history, and driving a new narrative.  We need to listen and act.  It is not only the kids fighting for change, but it is they who have the most to lose or gain here.

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For My Birthday

January 6, 2018

My birthday is in a few days.

It is a social media thing to raise funds in celebration of your birthday.  I like it.  Facebook has hundreds of enrolled non-profits, and if I picked one of them it would be easier and more compelling for you to part with your cash.

But the organization I most want to support didn’t have a Facebook profile.  My hope is that pointing people to a small, ground level non-profit might garner more bang for the buck.  You won’t see those motivating Facebook totals.  But if you believe in this effort, you will know that your money went straight to a small and mighty warrior for women, and the brave staff members who keep its mission alive.

Pink House

trappedThis is the only remaining abortion provider in my hometown of Jackson, Mississippi – for that matter, in the whole state.  Despite wide praise for Willie Parker and his relentless pursuit of rights for women, especially poor and desperate women, this clinic still struggles.  Because it is the only one in Mississippi, thousands of women are dependent on its survival.

You can read about Dr. Parker’s compassion here.  You can donate to the Jackson Women’s Health Organization here.  And if you don’t want to do that, but you support the cause, you can also do so by buying Dr. Parker’s book here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Louis

November 11, 2017

 

Louis-ckLouis CK has been telling us who he is all along.

Onstage he has said he feels trapped in his own perversion – a slave to it.  Just because a comedian makes you laugh about something does not mean he isn’t serious.

He put his most disgusting self on display and we laughed.  It was funny because we could relate to his suffering, and because we weren’t talking about the victim.  We weren’t even considering that there was a victim.

Once we saw the victims, it wasn’t funny anymore.

It took him a damn long time to admit there were victims.  Years ago, I saw him brought to tears in an interview as he described his admiration for Tig Notaro.  She has publicly pressured him to speak to these accusations for months, and he still didn’t do it.   Probably because he knew it would be the end of his career, and likely ruin his relationship with his daughters.  Can you imagine being a kid and having your dad be this public figure?  He has long said he would not respond to these claims.  I am glad he changed his mind.

Men like this run rampant in show business, and certainly in comedy.  It would be hard to find a female comic to dispute one word of Laurie Kilmartin’s experience.  But it also runs rampant in mundane industries.

My first experience of sexual harassment was from a CFO of a non-profit.  He was 70 years old at the time, and I was 22.  He had a warm, folksy, soft-spoken demeanor, as did his adorable wife.  If you met him, you wouldn’t believe me.  I know, because someone else accused him and I didn’t believe her.  Until it happened to me.  My shock was so substantial, my view of him so shattered, I couldn’t bear to be in his presence.   I suddenly had no idea what to expect from him.  By the way, I was the HR person.

If you are reading this and still don’t get how common this is, you need to wake the fuck up.

I love that women are coming forward and speaking out about men who operate this way.  Speaking out helps, because secrecy is the lifeblood of shitty behavior.  For every person brave enough to disclose such experiences, you are my hero.

But what can we do before it happens?

We need to teach respect for women in society and admit when we fail to have it in our policies and behavior.  Women and men have been saying this for a long time.  It is correct, but it is not enough.

Calling these guys monsters doesn’t work.  How they arrived at being an asshole of this level is not a healthy individual deciding to be a shitty person.  There are more out there.  There are teen boys jacking off in a shower right now who will grow into this kind of person.  What can we do to get them off this path?

What do we do with unacceptable sexual urges?  If you find a willing sexual partner to happily play your game, you are lucky indeed.  But if you don’t, what do you do with the longing?  And what do we call it?  Is it sexual deviancy?  I’m not sure that label helps.  Is it sexual dysfunction?  It sure seems to interfere with healthy functioning, so I say yes.  What does it say that we have a pill to help a man get it up, but not one to control where he puts it?

Few things are more taboo than discussing your weird sexual desires.   The comedian’s stage is a true exception.  Sex is an endless fount of comedic material.  People joke about their sexuality, often in horrid ways, but they get laughs.

But where are we allowed to seriously discuss it?   When a teenage boy is discovering his sexuality and the myriad of urges that come with it, who is there to guide him in managing those urges in a healthy way?    If having control over someone turns him on, who is there to help him recognize and deal with those feelings?   If he has inappropriate thoughts about children, what does he do?  What if such things crop up in his teens, fraught with awkward social interactions and hormones and insecurity.  Where is the safe path to deal with what scares you inside your sexual self?   I am not saying Louis is a pedophile, but there is commonality across predatory sexual behavior.

That kid may even have people in his life who are willing to guide him, but the taboo attitude around errant sexual desire is a major barrier.  Such feelings are vilified everywhere you look, and they should be.  But that doesn’t change the reality that what turns us on can be a psychological and chemical mystery.   Scientists make careers out of studying it.  It is not surprising if a boy struggles and gets psychologically off course.  Some people are going to have these urges, and they need a way to deal with them early.

Unless he is a narcissist or psychopath already, shame is the first to arrive.  When we feel weird sexually, our first instinct is to make sure no one finds out about it.   Then there is a super accessible, multi-billion-dollar industry with open arms, ready to surround that shame with a false narrative of sex.  Its expansive venue for exploring those urges in secret is an easy escape from dealing with the downsides of one’s predilection.  Whatever weird thing you’re into, porn is there for you.

Take this teen scenario and fast forward 10 years.  He’s probably had sex – if he’s lucky, a lot of it.  He may have fallen in love, maybe even more than once.  But where are those urges?   Has he discussed them with anyone other than locker room banter?  Has he faced the shame and the risk such urges could cause if gone unchecked?  Has he pressured a partner into having sex?   Has he pushed past a drunken lack of consent?  Is he on a path to healthy sexuality, or can he see it if not?

In that time of forming habits and getting to know yourself, there are ample opportunities to get off course in your psychological relationship with sex.  With each wrong turn, another layer of shame and false narrative and denial is added.  Add another 25 years, and you have a Louis CK finally admitting he’s a shit.  Decades of such denial is why perpetrators are unable to face the magnitude of their crimes.   No one wants to see that they’re a bad person.

If you are a man and genuinely want to be an ally, how can you influence this issue among the men in your life?  Yes, this behavior is rampant, but so are really good men with good intentions.  I see you and I’m asking you to consider how you can impact this issue.  Do you see glimpses of this in men you know?  Do you address it seriously?  If you don’t know how, research it.  Ask for help.  Learn to deal with this.  If you value bravery as a feature of your masculinity, then here is your chance to shine.

By middle age, more than a few men like this are in a position of power, and likely have people around him who share his faults.  Power is intoxicating. Only the most mature and self-confident have the self-awareness to even admit they are exploiting it, much less resist doing so.  Watch a child gifted with charm, good looks and social savvy begin to discover and capitalize on the social impunity that comes with those gifts.  It’s human nature.

I like a lot about Louis CK’s admission statement, but I don’t buy the notion that he didn’t understand the power he held when he did these things.  He was just too turned on by it to consider the other person’s feelings.

There are mental health practitioners who deal with destructive sexual predators.  You’d be amazed how many people are receiving such psychological services for the most severe presentations, in the county where I live alone.  By the time treatment is sought, though, things are really bad.  Very bad things have happened.  Major damage has been done.  How many more need such treatment?  How many men fly under the radar because they have these attributes to a lesser degree?

Are we going to vilify an entire gender, or are we going to see mental illness and faulty wiring in human beings and systematically deal with it?  We can call it sin and immorality and evil all day long, but look at addicts.  Shame and judgment don’t change them.  It takes a more complicated suite of mental health services for them to become a productive and functional member in society.

How are we going to teach our children, our teens, and all of humanity, to be brave enough to recognize and proactively address the disgusting things we find within ourselves?  This is the question we need to be asking.   When are we going to admit that this is common and that we perpetuate this in our society?

If we bring perversion and sexual dysfunction out from under the taboo umbrella, we can openly discuss that it is real and common and can be destructive.  Such an open recognition would support a safer space for victims to tell their story.   Each of us, of every gender or age or sexual orientation, needs a safe place to deal with our sexuality.

I love Louis CK’s comedy, even today.  Is he fucked up?  Of course he is.  He’s a comedian.  We cannot crack this joke and pretend that fucked up people don’t inflict damage on others.

I believe his contribution to comedy and social dialogue is important.  It has informed my thinking on this issue, and helped me question how we address it.

Now that his shit has finally hit the fan, he has a unique opportunity to influence a whole generation of men who need open and humble dialogue about this behavior.   He also has a unique opportunity to validate women’s experiences with men like him.  I hope his admission statement is only the beginning.  While his power has changed dramatically, powerful he still is.  It is not too late to use that power responsibly and influence this issue in a positive way.

***

Note:  As I express these thoughts, I speak in terms of men perpetrating crimes against women, because that pattern is rampant.  I recognize it happens in all kind of ways, in every direction along the gender spectrum, and everyone needs a healthy path to deal with any number is issues in our sexuality.  That is my whole point.

 

Being Not Ok

September 17, 2017

My son and I have an ongoing dialogue about my sense of humor.  We both love it when he makes me laugh, which he does very well and very often.   He is also quick to tell me when my sense of humor is conspicuously absent.

“Mom, I think when you lose your sense of humor, it means you need to go away and take care of yourself.”  This he tells me the other night.  Out of the mouth of a babe,  or a very tall thirteen-year-old.

These last few months I have been struggling with pretty nasty anxiety.  It may have been longer, I can’t really say when it took hold.  Those of you who have spent any time with me in person may have noticed how tightly wound I tend to be.   But this was WAY worse.  Over several months my neck and shoulders gradually became so tense and tight, that when people who love me hugged me, it hurt.  My jaw was stuck in a clenched state.  At the worst of it, my heart raced and I had to focus to return my breath to normal.

It had been an extended period of professional anxiety and change, plus normal stresses of working full time and mothering three kids.   But no big crisis.  No health scare.  No sudden loss.  None of the biggies.

I tried to exercise more often.  I started meditating more often.  I looked long and hard at stressors in my life, made adjustments where I could.  But I still felt like a mess.  I felt like I didn’t have a handle on anything.   The heart racing and breathing issue was happening frequently enough to scare me, and it was becoming harder to settle it down.  All this escalated into a two day episode of intermittent, uncontrollable crying.  So I finally broke down and asked my doctor for medication. More, actually, as I was already on a low dose of anti-depressant, anti-anxiety medication.

This last week I had a profound realization:  I feel much better.  I thought back to when I didn’t, and how helpless I felt.  It bothered me that day to day life was hitting me so hard.  It felt like failure.   I felt like a failure.

I look back on those months and see how I gradually sank downward.  Feeling out of control, feeling anxious about that, and then feeling bad about my feeling out of control.  Shame kicked in aninspiration_or_desperation__by_aki355-d384x1rd festered.

When you see the statistic that 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness in a given year, this is but one example.  Sometimes our minds get off track, and sometimes outright betray us.  My own history leads me to believe in the combination of therapy and medication, if appropriate.  The tending of the mind is a critical endeavor, and there is no shame in seeking help.  There is no shame in pharmaceutical support.

None of this can be done alone.  I had a couple of friends I felt like I could share this with, and they helped me get out of my isolated thinking.  Knowing they cared and supported me helped.

None of this is a magic fix, either.  The anxiety is still here.  I still watch closely how I manage stress, and adjust my tactics as needed.  I still meditate, and find it enormously helpful.  And today, I share this with my world, because I know I am not alone, and public discourse is a great reminder of that fact.

Kids, This is Racism

July 4, 2017

Last year Michael and I took the light rail downtown to see the 4th of July fireworks. You were with your Dad at another celebration. I wish you had been with us, so we could talk about what happened, so you could see this up close.

The train home was slow to arrive, and hot and crowded when it did. We piled in and squished against each other until the train was packed enough to leave. A woman sat near us with a stroller surrounded by all the tired, sweaty bodies.

Suddenly she hollered at another woman near her. “Don’t bump my baby!” Her tone was abrupt, her request unrealistic in the packed train car. The infant slept in a car seat within the stroller, likely the most comfortable passenger on train. Dropping her volume a bit, she explained. “She’s small and I just … don’t want her bumped.”

I know this moment – managing kids on a long hot night, when you cannot handle one more crying episode, one more mishap.

The standing woman rolled her eyes and turned in the opposite direction. “She’s gonna get bumped by the train anyway.”

The woman sitting with the baby was black, the standing woman was white. Each also had kids with her about your age, upper grade school or early middle school. As the train ambled along, the white woman now looked annoyed and nervous. She clutched the railing and her daughter tight, trying to avoid bumping the stroller as she was bounced about. She chatted non-stop with her daughter, about the week and the day.

At one point she stroked her daughter’s hair and said, “Everyone is important. We are all equal.” She repeated similar phrases, at a volume loud enough to carry. What was spoken with the steady tone of a peaceful mantra, carried an undertone of aggression.

She didn’t say “all lives matter,” but I doubt I am the only one who heard it. It was the façade of a lecture to her daughter, spoken loudly enough for someone else. This was two days before Philando Castile was killed by a local police officer just a few miles away. Black Lives Matter was already well established in Minneapolis in response to a history of similar incidents.

Several stations later the train came to a stop. The black woman got up, then screamed at the white woman to let her through. Now her voice held full furor, well beyond the abruptness of her original tone.

The white woman immediately leaned forward and screamed back, eager to engage. Shouts flowed. Both women leaned toward each other, arms gesturing wildly. A few passengers urged the black woman to step off before the doors closed again. The two women kept on. Each boasted how many passengers must be on her side.

Then the black woman looked around. There was no support for the argument to continue. Its end depended on her exit. Her expression fell, and she stepped off the train.

We jerked back into motion. The remaining woman made a few comments insisting none of it was her fault. Then no one spoke.

I’m sure some passengers thought the black woman was to blame. She spoke first. She started it. But the antagonism in the other woman’s voice seemed determined to say, “What you want isn’t important.”

You may think, as the white woman clearly did, that the harsh tone of the black woman should be nipped in the bud. Zero tolerance. She needed someone to set her straight. This mentality fuels in people an indignant obligation to apply behavior modification, but really punishment and disregard are the only tools in their kit.

Most of us have some version of the black woman’s behavior that night. Have you ever been short with someone, a friend, a teacher, or total stranger? Me? You might have been embarrassed later, disappointed at your own behavior. I have.

What would I have done had she asked me not to bump her baby’s stroller?

I think I would have promised to try, while pointing out the challenge of the bumpy ride and crowded train. I may have smiled, asked her baby’s age, asked how it went managing such a young one in the loud night – small talk we mothers often make with each other. I would have tried to show her that I saw her baby, and meant her no harm. I have mothered babies. I know how tightly wound caring for an infant can leave you.

It is easy to claim I would have handled that train incident differently. When I first tried to write about this, I fumbled around with words like grace and kindness and what the white woman should have done instead. But it wasn’t right. Something was missing.

As I struggled, Michael was reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a book of essays to his son. He encouraged me to read it, because I was writing this to you, and because there was a similar incident in it.

Coates had taken his young son to a theater on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  They exited the theater via a crowded escalator.  When they stepped off, an impatient woman pushed his young son out of her way.

“Many things now happened at once. There was the reaction of any parent when a stranger lays the hand on the body of his or her child. And there was my own insecurity in my ability to protect your black body…

…I was only aware that someone had invoked their right over the body of my son. I turned and spoke to this woman, and my words were hot with all of this moment and all of my history.”

As the exchange continued, the man with the woman threatened Coates with, “I could have you arrested!”

Coates unflinchingly deconstructs his complex emotions around that event. He responded as any parent would, and yet struggled with feelings of self-recrimination. He felt his instinctive reaction, however justified, made his son more vulnerable in that moment. Every parent can relate to the fear of being unable to protect one’s child. But this was beyond that. This was that same fear, covered with layers of a constant anxiety I have not experienced.

I started this piece because I wished the people on that train could imagine the black mother’s perspective, could have given her room to just be having a tough night, some room to express protectiveness of her daughter. I want to equip you with a thought process that arms you with compassion in such situations, rather than fear of discomfort.

Was the black woman a rude person? Or was she reflecting a life of feeling unsafe? Or was she just an exhausted mother at the end of a long night? I can’t know now.  Imagine how either incident would have played out if her stress in parenthood had been met with understanding instead of indignation.

Was the white woman on the train racist?  She could have just been a mother having a bad night too. But that changed in my eyes when she began her all lives matter mantra. It was a taunt. And it worked. The black woman wasn’t picking on a white woman for being white. Almost the whole train car was white.

As I sat quiet on that train, and fumbled to write about it since, I was hung up on the belief that the black woman had, in fact, started it. I failed to see her full humanity even though I was trying to see it.

I looked on the white woman as the villain, the racist. I imagined myself some sort of savior if only it had happened to me instead. I’d have been kind and there would have been no conflict. That was the narrative spinning in my head until I read Coates’ essay.

Racism steals a person’s right to be recognized as fully human and imperfect. Statistically, our society responds to errors by people of color with more punitive measures. Then we justify it by saying he should have known better, she should have acted different. We leave no room for a human reaction. And like I did that night, the rest of us stand by in silence.

Looking back, I could have been that mother’s ally.  Instead of imagining myself in the other white mother’s shoes, making motherly conversation, I could have struck up that conversation anyway. I could have let her know someone near her cared about how she felt and what concerned her, but I didn’t. I failed my fellow mother that night.

This is racism. It is so subtle. It is woven through a million daily interactions that say “you are lesser than.” We can’t solve it because we refuse to see it in ourselves. Then we compound its violation every time we deny its presence.

Maybe that small intervention would not have mattered at all. Maybe I could have and should have done other things. But at a minimum, that black woman deserved to have someone on her side.

We cling to our posterchild of racism, the redneck parading the confederate flag, an easy symbol of hate. We point the finger elsewhere and smugly deem ourselves innocent.  We believe it is that simple.

I am a 40-something social progressive who grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. My upbringing was surrounded by blacks and whites on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement. I have always believed racial equality important, and was raised to value it. But I am still not awake enough to process an event like this and think on my feet quickly enough to act. That is my job to fix, and as you grow up, it is yours too.

Always try to look inside yourself as unflinchingly as Coates did.  Listen to voices like his, of those who are willing to tell their stories and lay their humanity out for you to see.  Listen to those who have experienced that which you never will.  Look inside our history and our statistics and who is suffering and how we got here.

On this day we set aside to celebrate freedom and independence, we have to be honest with ourselves about how we look away. When this country was founded, almost 20% of its population was enslaved. We declared independence and signed documents of freedom with one hand, and continued cracking the whip of imprisonment with the other.

Today, in the subtlety of daily life, we still do.

Getting Out

June 24, 2017

Two weeks ago I stumbled upon an ad for a writing retreat at a cabin a few hours outside the Twin Cities.  I have one primary writing project, and several small ones I need dedicated time to complete.

I’ve lived in Minnesota for 16 years, but had yet to experience this concept of cabin life.  The retreat was cheap, so cheap you bring your own food.  A schedule of intensive writing, relaxing breaks, all on a weekend I didn’t have my kids.  I was in.

It was hosted by a company I had never heard of.   What do I know about this company, Blue Harbor?   Let’s see, two people I know like the Facebook page.  It HAS a Facebook page.  Looks like a relatively new business.  Sure.  Why not?

So Friday morning I emailed by best friend the details so if I didn’t return she could lead y’all to the serial killer.  I wasn’t really worried. It just seemed a good practice for a solo traveler.

But then, at 9:20 at night the sun was quickly disappearing.  I was wandering through dirt roads and trespassing multiple wrong properties because I missed the house number clearly visible on the road.  This is what happens when you rely on Apple Maps in the middle of nowhere, and no reception, instead of following your host’s expert directions.

As I wandered across multiple dirt roads through a darkening forest, my comfort zone was nowhere in sight. What if I never find it? Or for that matter, what if I never get out of this winding matrix of Minnesota dirt roads in the middle of nowhere?!?  I mean Wisconsin. That’s right. I’m in Wisconsin.

I retraced what was at least a mile too far down these roads, past the NO TRESPASSING sign I didn’t see when I had trespassed previously.   I got back to pavement and a clearly marked intersection, read the directions again and started over.

And just as the sun was truly gone, I pulled up to a warmly lit cabin and three friendly faces happy to see me.

As we visited, I realized they all already knew each other, and wondered who this brave soul was who signed up to spend a weekend with total strangers.  I thought, that’s not so brave.  Then I remembered being so lost 15 minutes before and thinking tears were sure to come.

So yes, maybe it was brave of me.  Then I had great conversation with my fellow writers, and was so energized I had to make notes for almost an hour before I could fall asleep.

My bunk bed is shockingly comfortable and this dude makes fantastic coffee.  Sometimes when you get out of your comfort zone, you find a brand new one.

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