I am learning to show up even when I want to stay home.
I am learning that wants can’t always be trusted
but often intuition can.
I am learning that I don’t need to know how it will turn out
in order to make a make a move.
I am learning that no one else knows either.
Continue reading “decomposition”
We can do so much better. For the past few years, our patterns were stuck enough to seem hopeless. This past June, I made the choice to cultivate a more loving home.
After a long summer that included a stretch of five weeks apart, my son is back. This is the first night of his 4th grade year that he is spending with me. The evening coincides with a parent-teacher event. This means my boy runs wild around the neighborhood with his pals for a few hours before I have to leave him behind. He comes in, flushed and breathless, and parks himself in front of his video games. I lock the door behind me.
Tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
– William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act ii, Scene 1
In case of paralysis, break glass. Out there
is here. Stairs, a whining thud, fat-bellied
cicada trapped in a breezeway
flings itself from wall to wall
until it surrenders
to defeat, so much like gravity.
Even with its trident of five eyes,
it is blind to the way through.
Corridor becomes vault. Had it been born
a bluebottle butterfly, it might stand a better chance,
its photoreceptors detecting
a million colors
more than those five eyes,
and far beyond what our feeble pair perceive
(and so believe). We are as wary of spectrometers
and their evidence of hidden hues
as we are of quantum wavefunction
and infrared snapshots of the Kuiper belt. Continue reading “Side Way”
As I shift, so does my son. I invite him to “special time,” a goofy name for a powerful connection, and he first rolls his eyes. “I’m not doing that.” The idea of playing just with me for 30 minutes is near the bottom of his list.
“You get to be in charge,” I explain. “It just has to be between here and the park.” Also, no screens, and no one’s hurting anyone else. Other than that, we can do anything he wants.
“Can I throw pillows at you?” His eyes have stopped rolling and now they’re fixed on me.
“Sure, as long as you’re not hurting me.”
“Can we go outside and play a tag game?”
I laugh “Of course.” Tag is the one thing that I almost always resist when he suggests it. Chase my son endlessly around the neighborhood? I’d rather stay in and clean hair out of the bathtub drain. As it turns out, it’s not tag or pillows. “Pirate ship!” he shouts, and runs into the living room to start moving furniture. We pull out the ladder for scaffolding, king-sized sheets for the mast. Bug creates turrets using plastic wine goblets. He also creates something called a “maker” which is a kind of on-deck factory that turns raw materials into weapons.
If someone asked me to describe my son with naked honesty, I might say obstinate, aggressive, bright and powerful. Curious but easily frustrated. Sometimes cold and snubs emotional connection. The boy hates to lose. He’s an Eeyore on steroids.
If that same someone were to walk into our house during our first shot at Special Time, they’d see an entirely different boy. Here is a child who is eager and spunky. He’s creating an elaborate game with unclear structure, and he’s persevering with enthusiasm. As he turns the form of Minecraft into a real-life activity, he’s engaging me in fizzy conversation. He’s cracking jokes.
The visitor in our house would meet a boy who is close to his mom, sharing and cooperating, confident enough to be fine with uncertainty. Here is a Piglet who is ready for anything.
So which boy is he?
We like to think of personality as fixed. That person in our life is a certain set of characteristics: maybe kind, a little introverted has good follow-through on commitments but fumbles in front of crowds. This is the person we know, and because we know she’s this way, we have a sense of predictability in our friendship, workplace, or marriage. If people are changeable, how could we function in our roles?
Indeed, we haven’t needed to ask this question much because most of the common (if mistaken) personality theory that dominates our lives reinforces the notion of consistency. It’s how we end up with ENFJs in workplace training with ISTPs, figuring out how to cooperate on a team. Nevertheless, as anyone who has taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) knows, the test has its flaws. A question comes up: “As a rule, you proceed only when you have a clear and detailed plan.” The test-taker then has to think, In a project meeting with my co-worker? When coaching my kid’s basketball team? Cleaning my closets? Working out at the gym?
Which rule for “as a rule”? The trainer is little help. She’ll say, “pick one area of your life and stick with that.” This test is supposed to map a person’s defining characteristics yet allows the random selection of context and perspective? A little skepticism is fitting.
The fact that organizational leadership and development professionals still rely heavily on the MBTI is not confirmation of its reliability. Indeed, there is no replicable research to back it up, and the science is flimsy at best. The lack of connection to any empirical evidence about “personality type” should gut its foundation and release its hold on us.
“What concerns me is the cultlike devotion of many consultants and practitioners to it without the examination of the evidence,” says Adam Grant, a professor of industrial psychology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
– Lillian Cunningham, “Myers-Briggs: Does it Pay to Know your Type?” in The Washington Post, December 14, 2012.
Corporate training is a $50 billion a year industry. Its influence is one reason we still believe so firmly in fixed personality traits. Another is based in the theory that we simply see what we want to see, that we seek out examples of certain traits and fix them to people. Personality, then, is an illusion.
Yet another curious idea is that personality, while unfixed and changeable overall, is consistent in a particular context.
Lee Ross, a psychologist at Stanford University, has another intriguing idea. . . He thinks we actually are seeing consistency in human behavior, but we’re getting the reason for it wrong. “We see consistency in everyday life because of the power of the situation,” he says. Most of us are usually living in situations that are pretty much the same from day to day, Ross says. And since the circumstances are consistent, our behavior is, too.”
– Alix Spiegel, “Is Your Personality Fixed, Or Can You Change Who You Are?” from Invisibilia on NPR.
Every so often, I look up exes to see where they’ve wandered. It’s a rare indulgence — rare enough that when I find them again, they have crossed oceans of life. One fellow was all braggadocio masking incompetence and sloth. He was stuck in debt and working a customer-service job he hated. Now runs his own business. His company lead tours in the mountains and edu-tains high school groups in the nation’s capital. The contrast is startling. It’s a marvel that he’s so completely not who I thought he was. . . or rather, that the man he was at that time and place was only one slice of a much larger, evolving person.
Traits may not be as inherent as we assume. Change the context, and the person himself can change.
If I want to become someone different (as indeed I do, with regard to how I approach my career and family), it’s not going to work for me to do so in the current stage-set of my life. If an environment rewards mediocrity, how can a person develop drive?
Shifting the situation invites a reworking of the self.
Taking on a project in a volunteer setting, or stepping into a leadership role in the kiddo’s school, or diving into HOA budget management, or committing to a regular childcare exchange with other parents in the community. . . these are just a few of the ways to “become” someone different. A new role in a new context allows for the cultivation of qualities not yet fully formed in the familiar self.
My son and I are not “who we are,” despite the inane it is what it is trope that comforts our dissonance and excuses our inertia. If we aim to invite a fuller version of ourselves, then we must change what we do, and where, and when, and how.
Image: Micah Bazant from the Trans Life & Liberation Art Series
. . . a discouraged child tends to focus increasingly on her anxious desire to fit in and quickly loses sight of the needs of others in the family. Children are always trying to improve their sense of securely belonging as valuable members of the group, and they fear losing that connection. Therefore, the more the child’s discouragement deepens, the less capable she feels of interacting with others in useful ways. Instead, she is more likely to resort to misbehavior to connect inappropriately, to feel negatively powerful, and finally to gain at least a perverse sense of respect before giving up when her attempts fail.
– Linda Jessup and Emory Luce Baldwin, Parenting with Courage and Uncommon Sense
My boy has been back with me for a week. During that time, I have not screamed once. I have not stormed out to cool down. We have been on time for camp drop off every morning without a fight. Bug has gotten himself out of the bath, teeth brushed, and into bed before 9:00 every night without me raising my voice or lifting a finger.
On July 7, I made a commitment to heal our family. This is a tall order. A family is more than just one mom and it would seem that one mom alone can’t overhaul a whole family culture. Each of us can only control ourselves. As it turns out, this may be the concept that brings the most significant change to our family.
When children are very small and dependent on us, we can haul them out of troubling situations and put them in their cribs at specified times. We can decide what food is in front of them. As they get older, this control shifts. They fight their own playground battles. They can get up out of bed and turn the light back on. They can snub dinner and sneak treats from the fridge behind our backs.
A parent cannot control a child. Control is an illusion. Dominance as a method of control is an illusion. A parent can withhold, wheedle, punish, threaten, bribe, and ignore, but even with these dangerous tools, a parent cannot control a child.
What a parent can do is model healthy choices and guide a child to build the capacity to navigate the world.
I made a commitment to learn whatever I could to strengthen our family. The past few weeks, I have planted this commitment into the center of my days. Between reading and journaling to reflect on the approaches I’ve taken (and might like to try), I’ve immersed myself in a 16-hour Parenting Encouragement Program class. The process has been intense and even transformative. That word that usually makes me roll my eyes, but in this case, “transformation” about captures what’s happening here.
My son comes off the day camp bus in a foul mood and immediately lays into me for some perceived slight, like asking him to please hand me the tablet so I can charge it. He is furious, steaming, telling me he hates me. These are his steps in our standard friction-filled dance, one we’ve been perfecting for years.
Now, I choose a different dance, one that improvises and responds. First I catch my breath. No reaction. I ask myself quietly to note that Bug’s behavior is a textbook version of discouragement, that he is actually seeking connection and a sense of belonging through a mistaken goal of taking revenge on me.
A parent cannot control a child. A parent can only control her own choices.
I choose my words with care. “It seems like something is really bothering you. I’m sorry it’s hard. Remember that it’s not okay to call me names or hurt me. When you are ready to talk about what’s bothering you in a less hurtful way, I am here to listen.”
He continues to simmer and spit but it’s cooling down. I sit quietly and breathe, remembering that my son is a creative child, he’s bright and resourceful. That he is learning, as I am. Even in my silence, I keep my mind on the goal of encouraging him and helping him feel connected and capable.
After a little while, after we’ve moved on to the next phase of our evening, he quietly — almost distractedly — says, “You should write a bad review of that camp.”
“Really?” I say, just as casually. “And what would I write in this review?”
Then he opens like the sky. Something happened this morning at the high ropes course. A misunderstanding, a punishment he felt was unfair. We talk it through and I match his tone. Attentive but calm, like this is any old conversation on any old day, not a huge issue. I do not come up with a list of solutions or reprimand him for what most likely stemmed from his failure to listen to instructions. I reflect back what I’ve heard and capture what his feelings might have been about this. Finally, I say, “Would you like to think through what you could do if this happens again? Or to keep something like it from happening next time?”
Bug shrugs and says “maybe,” then turns to his crafts. He’s had enough for now. Enough is fine. Enough is miles ahead of where we were a month ago. Enough is a victory. When and if he does want to tackle the issue, I’ll be ready to help him tap his courage and find his way.
I can only control myself. The choices I make contain the threads that stitch together this family. When Bug and I were stumbling through our difficult 9-day stay-cation together in June, this was my commitment:
I am determined to sustain a creative, positive planning attitude for the duration of this stay-cation with my son. This means I am equally determined to postpone any self-improvement initiative that might divert energy from our formidable endeavor.
Now I see that these two journeys — family health and personal well-being — are part of the same whole. Indeed, they turn on the same axis. The more skillful a parent I become, the more loving our relationship, the more encouraged my son, and the more nourishing our home. From this place, we all grow. In this place, we thrive.
Image: Pristine Cartera Turkus, “Mother & Child”
In February 2015, Natasha McKenna, a 37-year old neighbor and mother, called 911. The help she expected was not what showed up. Instead, she was herself arrested on an outstanding warrant. In custody, she suffered a mental health crisis. She was restrained while naked and put into leg shackles and handcuffs. Six Fairfax County police officers in hazmat suits put a bag over her face and tazed her four times. She stopped breathing. Natasha McKenna died a few days later. The deputies responsible for her death faced no charges and continue to work in law enforcement.
Today, SURJ Northern Virginia gathered at the Fairfax County courthouse in front of the detention center where Natasha McKenna was held and brutalized. The protest found its way to Route 123, a narrow and busy corridor through downtown Fairfax. At 9:00am right during rush hour, we stepped out into the street and stopped traffic. Coverage of the story is here and here and here.
The primary objective of this action was to focus enough attention to Natasha McKenna’s case that county Sheriff Stacey Kincaid will bring charges against the six officers. The protest is also part of a larger goal: to stand with Black Lives Matter. We need our neighbors and leaders to hear that racism and brutality are not problems somewhere out there, in Memphis or St. Louis or Ferguson. They exist right here in our own community.
As a white person at her first racial justice action since protesting the death sentence of Mumia Abu Jamal at the 1995 governor’s convention (that’s 21 years ago, people!), I’ve got some catching up to do.
This work is about Natasha McKenna. It is about changing structures of law enforcement and governance that dehumanize and destroy People of Color. This work is decidedly not about me. Yet when stepping out today, I woke up to a few things — food for thought for other allies who are considering their involvement? — about being white while working for racial justice.
Like how stark the difference between our treatment today and that of Black protestors using the same tactics in other cities. The police who came on the scene took their time to congregate. They kept a safe distance. They gave us three clear warnings and articulated exactly what would happen if we refused to move. No one touched a weapon. No one hid under helmets or riot gear. When they handcuffed the folks who blocked traffic, they asked if the cuffs were comfortable. The ones under arrest were booked and released in less than an hour. Everyone had time to get to work.
White privilege at a racial justice action means knowing that my job is safe even if I show up late, or show up on TV. I can take personal leave or just stay after 5:00 to make up the lost hours. Many of my co-workers, my supervisor, and even the students I serve will be supportive of my involvement in political protest. My livelihood is secure. I have no criminal record and I’m not on probation for any of the thousand tiny infractions that can land a Black person in jail. Even if I get arrested, even if my name is in the news, the consequences are negligible.
White privilege at a racial justice action means I can choose whether or not to be arrested. Both the cops and the activists know the script and the parts they play in it. We move through the choreography. The certainty is near total: I’ll block traffic at 8:00 a.m. and be heading to the office by 10:00.
Being white at a racial justice action means that I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the armored truck trying to turn right into me is not going to run me over. I can plant the giant image of Natasha McKenna in front of me. I can refuse to budge. The driver is welcome to be as pissed off as he wants. He can rev his engine, nudge up to me, come within 10 inches of my body, and I’m going to be safe. The cops standing there will not let him hurt me. There are laws in this country that protect me. And I’m secure in the knowledge that those laws will do exactly that.
And guess what? The Loomis truck driver growled and cussed, then backed up and shot an illegal U-turn to find an alternate way around us.
Being white at a racial justice action means that when the gal with the bullhorn clicks off the mic to confer with the cops and everyone is standing there waiting for guidance, I get to hide. It’s a white sort of hiding. I can stand there silent and anonymous and surrounded by 20 other silent white folks in front of double lines of cars stretching a mile in either direction. My privilege — and the expectation of decorum and conformity — allow me to gaze off vaguely and wait until our leader is done.
Awareness of white privilege at a racial justice action is something altogether different. It means reaffirming the commitments that brought me out. It means calling to mind the simultaneous actions going on around the country, and remembering that the People of Color leading this work are tired. They are always the ones on the front lines or in the line of fire. Arrest is no joke. Law applies differently or not at all. They don’t have time for my timidity, my uncertainty, my need for a perfect plan.
They are why I showed up.
Ending the racism that permits the white privilege that keeps our little group of protestors safe — and its dehumanizing corollary for everyone else — means that I get to check myself. Confusion and embarrassment are thick veins running right through the heart of the white culture I carry, particularly in the affluent, educated whiteness that is my native land. This need to know what I’m doing before I do it, this fear of looking stupid or screwing things up, these are all part of a crippling anxiety that has no part to play in the work of liberation.
So I say to myself, you know what, Smirk? No one knows what the hell to do. No ONE.
No one knows how to build this thing. No ONE.
But you are not one today. You are many, you are a force, you are part of an improvisation and a collaboration and a movement.
Being white at a racial justice action means stepping through the silence, opening up my out-of-practice voice, and shouting out the call:
Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter.
Black women matter. Black women matter.
Say her name. Natasha McKenna.
Say her name. Natasha McKenna.
No justice. No peace.
No racist. Police.
Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter.
Say her name. Natasha McKenna.
A final note: Putting down my sign at 10:00 and heading to the office, I realize with stunning clarity how goddamned much I have to learn. Becoming more skilled, knowledgeable, and effective will take some work. For this, I take the lead from activists and authors of color on all these fronts. This week, I dive into this excellent Black Lives Matter reading list which curates and categorizes a number of recent pieces from folks working on racial justice. It and others are available on Longreads.
Image: Note from a morning commuter sent to the SURJ organizers today.
In Jewish tradition, a person should recite 100 berakhot every day. That’s 100 blessings.
So you are or are not Jewish. Or you are. And you think maybe a blessing is something like prayer. Or gratitude. Maybe it’s different too. Maybe it’s noticing the azalea bush at the foot of the stairs and the way its blossoms began as thin green threads and now, after their full explosion, rest like a grandmother’s hands against damp leaves.
Maybe it’s also praising the rain.
A blessing is all these things. It is also more. You discover this prism of a definition somewhere deep inside the recitation. You also stumble out on its leading edge, that one you can only reach by covering ground that you hadn’t considered taking before.
Start with 1 (the public library). Then 2 (the co-worker who always cracks a joke). Lurch and resist your way to 10 (the grandparents, long dead, whose welcome and affection was so complete, you took it completely for granted).
Catch your breath.
When you get to 25 (the neighbors who stop to say hello even when your head’s down and you’re radiating leave me alone and they choose friendliness anyway) you realize you’re one fourth of the way there. You’ve hit your stride. This pace is a marvel. You thought when you started that that there’s no way, not enough good things, and never enough time to get them all in.
By 26, you begin to lift your gaze up and out of yourself (the teachers and the volunteer parents too). From there to 50, your radius spools out across the community (the folks who volunteer on weekends to rip the invasive shrubs from the park). By 51 (the friend raising funds for RAIN for Sahel & Sahara and the locals there who dig the wells), you’re spanning the globe.
Catch your breath.
Then cut the line and let it go.
Because you’ll look everywhere you’ve looked every day for years and see what you’ve never seen quite this way.
There will be 72 (Margot’s health)
And 75 (the field of buttercups behind Bob Evans)
And 80 (the way he let me cry and touched my face)
And 81 (all the women who’ve done it on their own and shown the rest of us we can)
And 92 (the web of bus and metro lines that WMATA workers map, maintain, and drive to get us where we need to go)
And 93 (the neighbor who sends a call out condo community listserv anytime there’s a lost dog in the neighborhood, and offers to lead up the search)
And 97 (a break in the clouds after days of rain).
Catch your breath.
Then toss it over the sky and let it sail its way
to 100 (the welcoming arms of this home).
You will see the multitudes, and marvel. You will find yourself dancing in the living room and swiveling your hips right around the most stubborn ghosts. You will turn towards your dear one and listen to what’s inside the words. You will lift every blessing up into your throat and let it become the truth. You will pause there before speaking, and when you do, it will be with a voice already lit with song.
Image: “Spring Rain” by Julie Cady Ryan