Scenes from Justice 4 Stephon

A bead of sweat drips off my face and hits the gray concrete sidewalk as I bend over.  I lock my dusty black road bike to the cold, metal bike rack in front of Sacramento City Hall.  A chubby tall, white man with a barely visible ring of grey thinning hair around the base of his head talks loudly on a cell phone.  He paces back and forth.

“You know I am a white man, so I just here to support and take orders from you all.”  I hear him say.  He is wearing a black oversized T-shirt that read “Build. Black.” in purple and white letters across his bulbous chest. 

I am here at City Council for the community forum about Stephon Clark, a man who was murdered by the police in his Grandma’s yard on March 18th, 2018.    

I am trying to figure out how to place myself in this scene.  I am alone and traveling by bicycle–a strategic way to get from place to place in a city that has been erupting in sporadic bursts of protest for the past week.  You don’t know what streets will be shut down and when, so you cruise on by.

I put my bike helmet in my backpack and stand up straight, stretching my arms to the sky.  I am trying to look natural mask the subtle anxiety that starts churning in my belly.  I feel like a high school student who had to show up to a dance by herself.  She stands on the sidelines, a wallflower watching the mob of people sway back and forth under cheap disco lights in her school gymnasium.  It takes some courage to walk towards a crowd alone.  I may have left my courage at home today.  So, I fake it and try to look natural.

I roll my shoulders back and pretend to stretch again, biding my time.  I look behind me towards a row of tall oak trees that line the city street.  News trucks are crammed together, parked next to a curb.   I see a row of cheap plastic tables and a line of people waiting with vacant expressions waiting in front of them. 

It’s a peculiar scene.  It seems so out of place.  A petite woman with gray, wrinkled skin serves bowls of beans and loaves of bread to the outstretched hands. A homeless man paces back and forth throwing his hands up in the air and intermittently screaming things like “we’re just here to support you guys” and “they shot his ass.” 

Nuns feed the homeless here.  I make a mental note. 

I start walking down the block and turn towards the massive concrete building.  I shimmy my shoulders adjusting the weight of my backpack.  I feel painfully conscious of every move I make.

  A woman is standing in front of a circular fountain handing out shirts and buttons that read “Build. Black.” Everywhere I look I see people wearing these shirts.  A thin white woman offers me a “Build. Black.” button as I walk by.  I shake my head and say “no, thank you.”  I am skeptical of the forces at play here—about who is trying to brand this moment and create the next hashtag, about who is swooping in and trying to turn a tragedy into a photo opportunity. 

I walk towards rows of gray, tinted windows that must be over 50ft high stretching up from the concrete and obscuring the City Hall chambers from the gaze of the outside crowd.  A mass of black bodies all stand in front of 3 metal detectors that are perched in front of the entrance to the building.  It’s 4:35 pm and the “community forum” is supposed to start in 25 minutes.  The chambers are full and crowds of people are still waiting to get in.

I stand on a black metal park bench, trying to get an aerial view of the crowd, trying to get a sense of where the lone white lady might fit. 

My efforts to “show up” feel futile.  I feel sheepish.  My eyes scan back and forth.  I pull my home-made from my bag and just stand there, on top my this black metal park bench, watching, taking it all in.  I feel the gravity pooling in my ankles, a weight holding me in place.

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As I stand there, I think of a term my mentor told me, “sacred presence.”   It’s where you don’t have to give or say or do anything, you just show up and learn how to be with people.  This is not easy for an overachieving alcoholic, but I “fake it til I make it.”  I stand there and just hold my sign, breathing, trying not to worry about what happens next.

It’s been 10 days since Stephon Clark was murdered.  The waves of shock have stopped reverberating through people’s mind and now everyone is sitting here in line, holding back anger and sadness that would spill out in unpredictable spurts from next three and a half hours.

I scan the crowd and see Mary, a 50 something elder, radical lesbian woman who has been on the streets of Sactown for year.   I know from my Friday Women’s meeting.  Our eyes connect, we give a knowing nod and half smile.  I jump down from the bench and go stand next to her, feeling relieved to see another white, alcoholic woman alone in this crowd.  We’re about 100ft from the entrance to City Hall standing next to a speaker that is projecting the voices from within the City Hall chambers. 

At 5:02pm, the forum begins and I am startled by the disembodied voices that pour out of the speaker.  The mayor drones on about the pain and suffering and all the policies, protocols and other irrelevant things that were going to happen.  A councilman from the Meadowview community then takes the floors.  More words float through the air. They are sorry. They know the community. Insert all politically correct diatribes here.  The numbness is ruptured by a sudden silence, rumbling, and string of expletives pierce the air.

“Man, shut the fuck up,” I hear as I look at Mary, realizing that the droning on of political appropriate jargon had ended.    

Stevante Clark, Stephon’s  brother, just took over the city council meeting, rushing past security, jumping on the mayors desk and screams “fuck you” in his face. He hoists his sagging pants above his hip bones, thrusts his fist in the air and does a celebratory dance like he had just scored the winning touchdown at his high school football game.  I’d later learn that this was his winning moment.  The few moments where he had control of the dialogue, a say in what happened next.

 He has a red and white bandana tied around his cleanly shaven head.  Bright white head phones draped around his neck.  He is wearing black felt slippers—the kind more “appropriate” people would exchange for shoes upon leaving their house.    

“The rent is too high.” “Dre T is mayor now.”  A reference to Sodom and Gomorrah.  I stand in semi-circle of people watching anger burst from between Stevante’s lips.  It’s a string of non-sequitors, ideas that emerge and disappear as quickly as they form.  It’s a mix of pain, grief, sadness and  impending psychosis.

I am watching this all unfold from behind the tinted glass of the City Council chambers, standing in a concrete courtyard surrounded by Black people–most of whom are doning “Build. Black.” shirts.   We’re all staring at a TV screen next to the window.  The screen gives the crowd a close up of Stevante’s coup unfolding inside. 

A homeless woman with tan, weathered skin and her meaty pitbull lay on the concrete underneath the TV screen.  She is curled up next to our feet.  We are all looking past her.  She is wearing a “Build. Black” t-shirt as she lays on her red tattered sleeping bag, one arm draped over her white and tan spotted dog.  She has a soft smile on her face and looks peaceful even as the swarms of bodies around her grow more agitated and shocked.  She doesn’t move. The gaze of onlookers, the crowds of black community members watching as Stevante screams into the microphone filling the chamber with disconnected words and ideas, don’t seem to disrupt her rest.  Perhaps she is immune to this, the gaze of others, the world churning on as she tries to get some rest.    

Over the next several days, the nation would watch Stevante Clark’s mind unravel, his thoughts growing more and more disconnected.  We’d watch his nostrils flaring, eyes narrowing, seething with anger.  “We haven’t slept. We haven’t eaten. I didn’t ask for this.”  The next moment he flings his fists in the air, knees bouncing, jubilantly dancing seeming electrified by the attention of onlookers.  He throw his body on his brother’s casket.  “I love the mayor,” he’d declares on national television no less than 48 hours after telling his to “fuck off.”

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It’s been two days since the City Council meeting and I am pushing my bike down the sidewalk looking for the Black Lives Matter protest.  We were supposed to meet in front of D.A. Anne Marie Schubert’s office at 3:00.  It’s 4:00 and the sidewalks are all empty, save for one white woman and her partner standing in front of the D.A.’s building.  “I just got off work.  I don’t know where everyone is.”  She is holding a sign that reads “Justice 4 Stephon” in green lettering.  A white PVC pipe holds the poster paper in place.  She gets a text from her friend and says the protest moved to the courthouse.

I ride several blocks, round the corner and head towards the courthouse.  I see Stevante Clark dressed in a oversized white t-shirt marching down the side walk toward a crowd.  He is surrounded by semi-circle of large black men, his “body guards.”  I feel strangely star struck.  He’s become a symbol for police violence and collective resistance in America.  I watch Stevante walk towards  a group of about 50 protestors are chanting “justice 4 Stephon.”  A line of bodies are blocking the on-ramp to the I-5 entrance.

Stevante makes his way towards the center of the crowd. He grabs the bullhorn and screams “anyone blocking the streets is disrespecting my family.”  I stand on the outside of the circle and listen to his rant and scream, “I didn’t ask for this.” “Do y’all love me?”  “I am….(Stephon Clark).”  A black, cloth high top sneaker flies through the air and lands at the base of a telephone pole about 3 feet from me.  Stevante had taken off his shoes and hurled them through the air.  A older white hippie dude hands the shoes to one of his body guards the shoes. 

The same disconnected bursts of sadness and jubilation are spilling forth in an unpredictable sequence.  Synapses in his brain can’t seem to connect on idea to another.  I imagine someone giving a lecture on trauma and showing a photo of a brain lit up like Christmas lights—one part isn’t communicating with another.  There are just flashes of random lights.

As an addict, I have banned myself from most social media—installing apps that prevent me from accessing Facebook, but I have broken all my self imposed social media rules these days.  I re-watch videos of the City Council meeting and my eyes fill with tears. Watching Stevante’s very public decline into hysterics reminds me of my sister.  He is acting out a pattern I have seen one too many times before.  I am reminded of times when I was with my sister in the emergency rooms.  She would verbally and physically act out as nurses and doctor’s trying to restrain her.  She’d yell one disconnected thought and then another.  A stream of emotions and ideas flowing through her mind so fast and she is grabbing onto whatever piece she can, just trying to stay afloat, but nothing will hold her.  “I didn’t ask for this.”  “I am…. (Stephon Clark).” 

As I watch these scenes unfold over the past week, I am desperately trying to form a coherent thought around all of it.  I am trying to piece together the senseless, lawless murder of young black man, the public decay of his brother’s mind, the homeless woman clad in a “Build. Black” t-shirt peacefully sleeping on the concrete as history unfolds around her, of my sister who also suffered irreversible trauma and is now locked in an institution far from me.

I found an article on Facebook that is helping me figure this out, helping understand the deep connections that just underneath the surface of all this.  The article is entitled “White People Don’t Understand the Trauma of Police Killing Videos.”  It’s written by  Monnica Williams, a black social activist professor who studies race-based trauma and mental health disparities.  She writes: 

“We need the world to see what is being done to our people to help bring it to an end. And it’s not just black people – these things are happening to Hispanic people, Native Americans and the mentally ill. The stigmatized and disenfranchised among us. I feel solidarity with all of them.”

I feel solidarity with all of them. 

The scenes I saw last week will be lodged in my mind for a long time.  I don’t doubt that as I go back to work next week, I’ll be refreshing browser and trolling Facebook looking for answers and information.  I don’t know exactly what this all means yet and that makes me uncomfortable.  The poet in me likes to think I am OK with ambiguity.  But, if I am honest, the alcoholic, who prefers control and black and white, wins every time.  So, I’ll keep sitting here with this discomfort—unsure of what to think of it all.

What I can say is that I do feel a new form of hope growing inside me in the midst of the chaos.  Growing up with the sort of chaos that never really gets better, hope is never a word that resonated with me.  However, I learning to open up to it and to let a little hope grow inside of me. 

For now, my hope is that as we Build. Black., we, as a Sacramento community, cast a net wide enough, we grow a vision large enough, that it can hold all of us together.  For me, Building. Black. is about bringing the margins to the center, and allowing us to feel solidarity with “the other.”       

When did you first realize you were white?

Trying to patch together a cohesive story about my experiences of whiteness and race makes me feel a little bit like a kindergartener making her first collage.  I picture my clumsy hands reaching around a wooden picnic table grabbing random pieces of stuff— a noodle, a piece of yarn, a straw—and trying to make all the pieces fit together. The end product is no work of art, not something to be proud of, but it is something.  And there I am, holding up a soggy piece of construction paper, with a crooked smile that says, “see I tried to tell the story.  Will you accept me, because I am trying?”  I think a lot of us white folks feel this way—like children, vulnerable, exposed and partially informed, incompletely aware—when we start to talk about our own whiteness which is probably why it doesn’t happen very often.

As I spin through the rolodex of memories, there are times when my whiteness comes into sharp focus.  There are these moments when I am acutely aware of  what whiteness is and why it matters, like when I change schools in 7th grade and become a “minority” for the first time.   And there are other times when whiteness just fades into the background—a discomforting static sound plays as all the melanin seeps out of the landscape and I am surrounded by sameness.  Everyone and everything is white, so I just don’t notice it any more.  This randomness and lack of continuity makes me uncomfortable, because I want to know the whole story.  I want to see how all the pieces fit together, to know the how and why of how all those experiences came to be before I start writing.  I know that there is a historical context to all of my experiences—the ones where I crossed borders and other where I was pulled behind large wrought iron gates.  I am not a historian and I don’t have much energy to do intense research, I’ll lay out some imperfect pieces—a random noodle here, a button there, a broken crayon somewhere in the corner—the kindergartener’s collage of my own racial memory, of what my experiences of whiteness have been and why they matter.  (The collage metaphor was bad.  But maybe it was so bad, it’s good?)

So, that’s how I feel about this task, but where should I begin? I’ll start with a simple (or not so simple) question: When did I first realize I was white?

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I first realized I was white while I was riding in the car on the way to swimming lessons.  My friend’s dad, Mr. Holden, was bringing us to the pool that day.  His sky blue hulking, pick-up truck pulls into the driveway of our house.  The exterior paint is chipped and battered.  I throw open the passenger door, take my gym bag off my shoulder and sit down.  My friend Andrea scooches over taking the middle seat, her legs straddling the stick shift. 

Growing up, my parents didn’t have  tons of money, but I didn’t know it. Soccer practice, swim and piano lessons, I had all the opportunities a child could dream of and then some.  It wasn’t until a few years ago that I became aware of the creative things my parents would do to give us opportunities and exposure without spending money.  Carpooling to the free swimming lessons at the Southwest Community Center was one of these strategies.  Free swimming lessons required us to travel pretty far, hence the carpool with Mr. Holden and Andrea, from our rural homestead in Onondaga.    

As the truck churns down the road, I can feel every bump and pothole.  The pick-up truck feels large, lumbering and hollow, the jagged, angular frame provides a thin shell that seems to barely shelter us from world whizzing by outside the window.  The truck is a bit like Mr. Holden—rough around the edges, a little beat up, sort of hollow, a tough exterior, a weak frame.  He is the night custodian at our elementary school and has a really “I don’t give a shit way” way of speaking and being in the world. Rich white people might call him “white trash.”   

The truck tips forward and we head down highway 175 toward the City of Syracuse.  The road is steep, tombstones pass by the window, a cemetery stretches out for days across the gray monotonous sky.  Tall boarded up buildings take the place of  Onondaga’s sprawling cornfields.  Barbershops and liquor stores emerge.  Dilapidated Victorian houses with expansive porches line the sides of the narrowing city street.  People with skin as dark as the soil gather on these tall, feeble porches together—watching traffic go by. Limbs hanging over banisters, black faces staring blankly at the passing traffic, children running along the sidewalk, barbecues smoke billows from backyards. 

The truck grinds to a halt at the intersection highway 175 and Brighton ave.  Mr. Holden grips the wheel.  I can see threads of sinewy muscle along the sides of his face.  Small tensions rising, muscles wrapping around the bones that connect in a big knot to form his jaw.  

 “Just a bunch of goddamn porch monkeys,” Mr. Holden spits out as he grips the steering wheel, his knuckles turning white.  “Look at all these goddamn porch monkey’s.  Get off your damn porch and get a job.”  He sticks his head out the window and contorts his face and screams, “what you looking at?!?!”   The light turns from red to green and the truck forward pops forward as Mr. Holden moves his foot from the brake to the gas and accelerate quickly. 

“Hahahaha, look at the porch monkeys,”  Andrea says and slaps my leg.  She turns her head toward me, looking for affirmation.  I stare blankly at her and then force myself to laugh along.       

Something inside of me recoils. I stare out the window.  My ten year old brain had trouble deciphering exactly what a porch monkey was or why it boiled up such feelings of hatred in Mr. Holden.  What I see outside the window—the dilapidated Victoria houses and sprawling porches—takes on a new meaning.  My insides churn, my thoughts halt, synapses too scared to fire.  The mind registers only a break in connection—an us and them.  There is a difference and there is hate and there is something called a “porch monkey.”  My childhood brain is trying to process what that means.  

An ineffable hatred spews out the windows of the truck and engulfs the landscape.  I can see it hanging there, invisible as Mr. Holden grips the wheel and steering his busted pick up truck, speeding down residential streets, braking and accelerating, our tiny bodies restrained by black, rusty seat belts.

           I look out the window and I wonder if all the black people know that Mr. Holden hates them so much.  I wonder if they think I hate them too.  I want to get out of the truck, but I am stuck there—feeling the engine vibrate, feeling every bump in the road.

This is what whiteness feels like.

A few weeks later, at that same intersection, the stoplight was red and my dad turned to me and said, “You see all this?  Every town has a place where they keep their black people.”  He lets out a long sigh and shrugs his shoulders.  Something between dejection, resignation and indifference seeps out of the air squeezing between his parted lips.

Porch monkeys.  Every town has a place where black people are kept.

This is what whiteness feels like.

If people ask me where I grew up, I usually say Syracuse, NY, though that is not true.  I grew up in Onondaga—my most formative years from the ages of 5 to 15 were spent in a poor, rural community on the outskirts of the Onondaga Nation Territory.  My early introduction to the city, to the place where black people were kept, was on the those long drives to the Southwest Community Center—where they offered free swim lessons to any kids that showed up.  My friends and my brother and sister were often the only kids in the classes taught by a large black man with dreadlocks that hung well below his waist. 

We were probably the only white kids within a 5 miles radius of the community center.  The two of us, me and Andrea, floating there in that Olympic size pool, learning to egg beater our legs and push our Speedo covered torsos above the water.  Kick your legs hard and keep breathing.   White kids learning to swim while black kids drown.   

The Southwest Community Center is located in the poorest part of the Syracuse.  The city’s Southside some of the highest concentrations of extreme poverty amongst blacks and latinos in the nation.  Rewind the clock about 400 years, when the first enslaved Africans set foot on American soil, and you start to understand how this landscape formed.  Slavery set in motion a momentum so fierce it would shape the landscape the city forever—the lynch pins of oppression and social isolation persisting for eternity. 

 

Syracuse, like most urban areas in America, has history etched into it’s landscape.  The timeline looks like this: slavery gave birth to Jim Crow.  Jim Crows became redlining which morphs into predatory lending and economic collapse and then “redevelopment.”  It’s the dispersing and containing of disposable black and brown people under the guise of development and progress. 

It’s also white kids in pick-up trucks learning about “porch monkeys.”  It’s free swimming lessons that black kids in the neighborhood don’t attend.  It’s misplaced guilt and blame.  It’s a hazy anger and fear that some of us learn about from the time we are young, and can only start to make sense of with lots of time and distance.    

And yet life continues.

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A post script—sort of

GOD is a Group Of Drunks.

Fast forward 24 years from the moment I learned I was white, and I am sitting in a taqueria in California.  Four circular patio tables and pushed together—blocking the soda machine.  A 60 year old white lesbian with salt and pepper short hair and hearing aids, a beautiful thin black woman with a thick English accent wearing corvette red lipstick, a meek 40 something middle eastern house wife with her hair pulled back in a low bun, several loud talking 30 something women and a smiley entrepreneur in her early 50s are all eating greasy hot tortilla chips, scooping salsa out of tiny plastic and spilling chunks of tomato all over the tables.  Everyone is saying happy birthday to one another.

“I used to fill the wine bottles with water after I drank them, so my girlfriend wouldn’t know how much I was drinking.  Then I would drink the water a few weeks later,” one of the 30 somethings says.  “Why would I drink the water? I don’t know.  It’s just what I did. And you see, I don’t even have to explain why I did that to you all.  You just get it.”

How the hell did this group of people get together?  And how is it their birthday?  This is what I imagine the people staring at us as they pass by are thinking.

I am learning in A.A. that when we come together around our shared inadequacies and deficiencies, and love each other unconditionally,, that all of this difference, this whiteness, this thing that can not ever be wiped away,  this thing that must be deeply considered and simultaneously surpassed, stops mattering so much.  We are just there together, smiling. Because God is a Group of Drunks. 

Also, Trump: FUCK YOU

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Happy Birthday to ME and other things…

On Sunday, November 26, 2017, I celebrated my 1 year sober anniversary.  One motherfucking year without a drink or any other mood or mind altering substance.  Holy shit.

The magnitude of this accomplishment (and the gravity that brought the house down and forced me to take an honest look at myself for perhaps the first time in my life) is hard to put to words.  The expectant alcoholic part of me wants to wrap it up in a nice little box or present it all in a ten point list with picture perfect quotes and photos.  The workaholic in me wants all the insights and lessons to learned now, delivered, stamped, done, please, cuz c’mon this post should have been written YESTERDAY. On to the next thing! (Side note: It’s amazing how workaholism just sucks the joy out of everything!  Everything gets turned into a list to be down, a task to be accomplished, laundry to be folded, workers to be trained, grants to write, dogs to walk, kids to be fed, babies to be made.  No joy, no sense of wonder or appreciation—just an untethered freight train crashing around the world checking boxes and asking for approval from some unknown source.)

I don’t really feel like writing, because it all feels so undone.  BUT, I’ll share some more of my half baked reflections on race, privilege, Trump and the sober life that have been swirling around my head for the past month, because I told myself I would write once a month.  I forewarn you that given the random, unfinishedness of my last post that these reflections are probably closer to 1/4 baked—still 100% liquid in the middle. (But I am not 100% liquid in the middle, because I AM SOBER.  BOOM!)

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Recovery is radical equality.

Getting sober and sitting in circles with other addicts/alcoholics has allowed me to experience the gift of radical equality—a sense of kinship and connection that is beyond human grasp, that is beyond the imperfect, white, brown, red, yellow, black disabled, gay, straight, bi, trans, etc. bodies we all wonder around the Earth in.  Over the past month, I have experienced this gift innumerable times though I haven’t always allowed myself to feel it.  That’s right.  I haven’t allowed myself to feel a sense of oneness and sameness.  There is part of me that feels too smart, too woke, too aware, too trying to be a down ass white woman who “gets it” to acknowledge and feel that sameness.  My neurosis around checking privilege, acknowledging difference, intersectionality and all those other important concepts creates these gigantic  walls in the brain, barricades around the heart. 

Radical healing, social justice and racial equity are at the center of my professional (and well, personal) life .  At work, we host many identity based conferences, workshops and trainings for people who work in schools.  One of these events was our annual Boys and Men of Color Workshop—an event where 250 young black men come together and explore masculinity, learn what to do when they get stopped by the police or when someone they know is arrested, and listen to other men and women of color talk about their experiences of what it is like to be a person of color today.  Carmen Perez, one of the four leaders of the Women’s March on Washington, was our keynote. Bad ass motherfucking mujer.

During the conference, I attended a workshop facilitated by the Anti-Recidivism Collective (ARC)—a community collaborative dedicated to helping prisoners recover and rehabilitate.  Their model is pretty much 100% the same as AA (shocker!).

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I stumbled upon the workshop somewhat accidentally.  I misplaced my program that morning—chalk it up to frenzied energy and excitement of realizing the key note was Carmen Perez.  So, I stepped into the ARC workshop and had no idea what the session was about.  I wrapped my fingers around the cool metal door handle, pushed the door open with my hip attempting to avoid any unwanted squeaks or creaks from the door hinge.   I stepped inside the conference room, shoulders hunched over, trying not to interrupt the workshop that had already started.   I push my shoulder blades against the bright white back wall of the conference room.  I try to slide into the room, side stepping along beige indoor outdoor carpeting.  I look up and see rows and rows of chairs in concentric circles, bright, rectangular fluorescent lights flooding from above. The banner above hung across the back wall.  A panel of three men—an older gentleman with a Panama hat and tattooed forearms, a young Latino man with dark skin and commanding presence and a squeaky high pitched voice, a large, assuming lump of person whose faced looked like it was chiseled from stone sat on the end behind a small rectangular table in the front of the room. 

My carefully calculated movement was an attempt to remain unseen—not only because I was coming in late, but because this workshop wasn’t for me or about me.  I, a white woman from Upstate New York, the district administrator wearing the blazer over her Black Lives Matter shirt, wasn’t in that circle.  I didn’t grow up in Sacramento or the inner city for that matter.  I don’t know what it’s like to be a young man of color, to fear the police, to experience racism and discrimination at every turn, to get kicked out of school, to have my dad beat my mom, to live off food stamps.  Moreover, this place is about the youth and we are the adult allies here to support their experience, organize the lunches and greet the young men when they jump off the bus buzzing with vibrant youthful energy.  The mind ticks on, all the differences to be aware of lest we let our guard down and conflate solidarity and privilege. (Cuz I am aware of my privilege, so I know better than that. I know better than to let my guard down and feel something, to acknowledge that maybe, on some level we are the same.) I was just an observer there. I know my role and now my role is to remain unseen–to not center myself or my experience in anyway.

But then something bigger than me reaches in and tears down all those walls.  I am left resting against a back wall in a conference room with tears streaming out of the corner of my eyes.  I listen as former felons talk about their struggle with alcohol and drugs.  Adults, six months out of prison, clawing their way back to life, preaching about how they “wished they would have focused on school instead of sports.”  I hear youth talking about their drunk dads who beat their moms.  How many of you have been arrested or seen someone arrested?  All hands raised.  I marvel at the bravery of our young men—the courage they have to just stand there, speaking their truth in front of their peers.  There is no promise of anonymity here.  There is only exposure—naked, bold, brave.

I stayed small, crouched against the back wall, during the workshop, but there was a part of my soul that cried out that day. Part of me raised my hand and said, “me too. I  am one of you.” Our stories are different and—while I feel trite saying it—we are, in that moment, the same.  Their struggle is my struggle.  I am an alcoholic, an addict. I know the insides of the psychiatric ward, the emergency room, the hospitals, the broken family, lost love and connection chaos creates.  And I need these former prisoners and boys and men of color if I am going to stay sane and sober.  I need them to be brave, so I can be brave.  And in that instant my soul feels something it was craving for so long—the kinship that transcends. 

Radical Equality does not let us white folks off the hook. 

My experience in the circle at the Boys and Men of Color workshop points to the source of tension I have been grappling with.  My mind is perpetually jumping from two oppositional points and trying to make sense of them (and also figure out how to respond when white folks get uncomfortable with the things I am writing and talking about.)

My motivation to take a “deep dive” into the formation of my own “white” identity stems for my desire to know my own experience of white privilege and to come to terms with how that has shaped who I am and in a way, what I owe.  So this is an exercise, fundamentally, in stripping away the large swaths and small interconnected threads that define my own inherited privilege.  It’s an exercise in understanding difference.  And this racial difference, I still maintain, is the most important for me, a white ally, to understand if I am going to be able to be effective at doing work around racial equity.  It’s a story I have to learn how to tell.    

  And meanwhile, my own recovery from addiction and alcoholism demands that I believe in our ability to transcend these differences.  It demands that I fully embrace and embody that idea that my liberation is bound up in your liberation and that we, the great parade of misfits, all need each other to heal and survive this wicked thing called alcoholism, addiction, drugs, chaos, brokenness and injustice.

I have been trying to reconcile two ideas that are oppositional and it’s really tough.  And I think it’s hard to reconcile, because so often, us white folks are out there looking for trap doors, for the things that allow us not see what we can’t and don’t want to see.  We want to find the edges that allow us to plunge off cliffs and distance ourselves from the discomfort of being born with body we didn’t ask for, with privilege and injustice we can’t undo.  So, for now, I will just keep holding these two opposing ideas. I am not definitely not done yet.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME!

So it begins.

First a confession: I am intimidated by my last post.  While the idea of writing a racial autobiography seems both necessary and worthwhile, I have felt too scared to start.  This is in part, because I always envision new projects in very grandiose, earth moving terms.  I then become paralyzed by the shear scale, complexity and scope of the matter and within seconds of inception, a project is rendered impossible.  This is, of course,a symptom of alcoholic thinking and perfectionism.  Character defects are a real bitch.

Second, writing a racial autobiography would require talking to people, specifically talking to my family and talking about my family.  Without starting this investigation, I already know that the branches of my family tree and the spirals of our interconnected DNA bind me to a history of inherited white privilege and an ugly, unspoken legacy of addiction and alcoholism.  I can’t separate one from the other—the privilege on the outside and the turmoil on the inside.  Our familial connections—when view through this lens—are not pretty and hard, if not impossible, to talk about.  Of course, the purpose of writing a biography of racial privilege is not to bring forth the incredible resiliency, compassion and selflessness of the people that made me, but to see ourselves from a more distant place, a place of understanding how “we,” the white folks of my family, relate to the non-white “other,” that is out there in the world and to better understand how these threads of privilege, and the subtext of addiction, womanifest (I just made that up, turned manifest into womanifest. Ha.) 

Third,  I don’t actually think I can do this.  Just starting this task makes me realize how little I know about my own family tree.  Where were my grandparents born?  What’s my paternal grandmother’s maiden name?  I start free trail subscription to ancestry.com and go back 2 generations and am already lost.  I am clicking around old year books and census data retrieved by a pricey search engine and wondering if I am getting any closer or further away from the questions I wanted answered. 

I know I don’t really have the time and energy to map it all out.  I’d like to look at the whole legacy of my own inherited privilege—learn exactly who was bought and sold and my how my distant relatives benefitted from the transactions of powerful among white males, who inherited what from whom and which black body was labeled a commodity to sold, inherited, traded.  Whose labor was stolen? Which black and brown bodies were rendered invisible? Which tribe did they take from?

So, the truth is I won’t ever know the specific answers to these questions, because, well, fuck, I ain’t a historian and I have a job, small rented homestead and like to get 6-8 hours of sleep every night. I also realize there is a privilege in ever being able to ask these types of questions about my history and know that the answers are out there somewhere, that all of this is knowable even if it is beyond my reach. Being born with white skin means my records are traceable, that “my people” were the record keepers with the power to denote who was born when, who got what, the power to determine what was recorded and who was erased.  Once I start searching, my familial roads will be longer and easier to trace.  These roads won’t stop at a dead end where someone became a commodity, a dead end.  This is what it means to walk around in a white body, to have the bold of colonizers running through our veins, to watch 13th on Netflix and stare blankly into space knowing that what “my people” did to the “others” and wondering what it means now.

Knowing all this, what comes next for Crashley? 

At a minimum, I can commit to knowing more than about my family history (herstory, itstory, theystory, goofy pronouns) than I do now.  While I probably won’t be able to draw up the specific language from my great, great, great, great, great grandfathers will where he bequeaths native American’s land and African labor to my great, great, great grandfather,  I know that if I go far back enough this “stuff”, the historical records and sites where racial privilege is created and inherited, is out there—somewhere.  I think the “general knowing” its there will always have to be enough.  (Let’s face it, the number of grandparents we have increases exponentially, so all of us white folks, at least in some very distant ways are connected to this legacy.  This is the historical context in which we live today. It’s the air we breathe.)  Yet, for me, knowing even a little bit more about the specifics of how I came to be on this Earth will be valuable. 

Lastly, I probably wouldn’t have written this post today if it wasn’t for a woman I’ll call Mermaid.  So, I’ll end my post with an ode to Mermaid. 

My women’s AA group is diverse in many respects—age, spiritual orientation, sexual preference, number of years in sobriety—but we are mostly white women.  At most, maybe 2 or 3 back women will be the circle with us at a Friday night meeting. 

Mermaid is one of these black women.  She sat down right next to be last Friday at 5:53 pm—just a few minutes before the meeting began.  Mermaid is a contradiction, filled with beautiful tension that hangs all over her body.  She is put together—with eyelash extension and long, manicured fake nails—and disheveled at the same time walking tenderly on high heals, drawing on a notepad, hoping to listen and remain unseen.  She has dark skin, a rail thin body and a disarming, thick English accent— a voice that sounds so peculiar coming from a Black woman in America.  She embodies a quality I love about recovering alcoholics, our courageous ability to walk around the world in this broken-put-together way.

Mermaid asked me for the title of my blog a few weeks ago and actually started reading my posts!  When Mermaid plopped down next to me she said, “people tell me they are colorblind, and I am just like, ‘yeah, well what do you do at a stop sign?’ So, the things you are saying need to be said and if I say them, people will just tell me I am complaining or playing the race card.”

So, what Mermaid reminded me of was the importance of us white folks continuing to speak up about our own privilege—especially when it’s hard to see.  As allies, we need to continue talking openly about these things, especially with each other.

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I can here you thinking: “Wait a minute?  Is that Gizmo?”  No. It’s not.  It’s the newest addition to the Crashley Sugar homstead–PUMPKIN, an 8 week old red-tri Australian Shepherd.  My congratulations you have almost been sober for 1 year and you landed a new job present to myself (and Sugar).  Gizmo is an amazing big brother and puppies are definitely easier the second time around.  

Putting words to my whiteness

As an alcoholic, I am prone to obsessive thinking.  In fact, it’s my default mode. Whiteness is one of the things—–I obsess about . When left unchecked (which is most of the time minus the ten minutes I spend meditating every morning), my thoughts about white privilege just kind of swirl like angry gusts of wind and thunder that never produce rain—“Trump is a fucking racist pig. Here are 10 ways to be a white ally. Why can’t I manage to finish reading that book about race and environmental education? Cue footage of the latest, horrific police shooting or white supremacists mowing down protesters with their cars.” That’s a small window into the tempest that is the alcoholic, anxious mind of a white gal attempting to organize her thoughts about her experience of white privilege.

 

Admittedly, I have been scared to take on this topic—in part because it’s so vitriolic. There is this part of me that is afraid that I’ll say some ignorant shit and get slapped by some troller out there on the internet for being an ignorant ass. (But let’s face it, only about 20 people read this blog; so the risks of getting my feelings hurt by some stranger out there in internetland are quite low. Alas, we alcoholics also suffer from delusions of grandeur, so this threat has been real to me at times. So, now that I have confessed this, I will put my irrational fears aside and continue typing.)

 

I have avoided writing about my own whiteness, because there is also a part of me that prefers to traipse around the land of intellectual arguments while keeping my own privilege and experiences of race at a distance. This is, in fact, how I spent most of graduate studies—writing about all the racist shit that what was going on “out there” in the world, quoting scholars, reading bell hooks, Foucault, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, etc., talking about “historically situated” subjects, but never really telling my own story (and feeling slightly sheepish and half hearted, because of it.) Never really looking in the mirror and asking the question, “how has your melanin deficiency shaped you, Crashley?”

 

This type of critical, deeply personal reflection was perhaps never encouraged, because for the most part, the people who structured by post-high school studies were white dudes. White dudes who are into social justice like to hide behind their intellect. Hyper-intellectualization seems to be an easy way to side step conversations about our own racial experiences and still demonstrate that we “get it,” because we are able to drop the right names and concepts at the right times. It’s like we can prove that we “get” privilege if can nail down the right arguments, quote the right scholars or seamlessly slim in comments about the slave rebellion of 1833 while sipping a latte or slamming a beer.

 

But what about “us”? Not the big, capital letter, concept of Whiteness, but the whiteness you see staring back at you as you brush your teeth in the morning. The whiteness you slather sunscreen all over wondering if the chemicals in the lotion or the sunrays are worse for you. That reflection, the skin we live in, I think, can be harder to look at, harder to understand, harder to see, than the arguments eloquently espoused in a masters thesis.

 

So, other than the fact that seeing our own whiteness is hard and I like doing difficult things, here’s some of what is motivating to me to write about my whiteness right now.

 

First, as I read more Facebook posts about “how to be a white ally,” I find myself feeling unsatisfied with the way conversation is framed.  Much of the conversation focuses on specific strategies like “seek diverse media sources,” or “find white ally friends” or “education yourself on the history of race and oppression in America” and leaves out personal experience.  I am assuming that lots of white folks are readings these lists, because they are short and trend worthy and the topic of being a white ally is probably starting to resonate with more people given the whole Nazis carrying torches in the street thing.  I guess it’s my own naivete—and perhaps my alcoholic mind that always seeks an easy, immediate solution—that is expectantly clicking on a ten-point list hoping to feel like, “ahhh, yes, this is what I was missing all along. A ten point program that will finally help put my obsession with race and privilege at peace.”  Needless to say, that has not been my experience with the whole “be a white ally” conversation.

What I have been craving is not a list,  but a more nuanced look to how privilege and power derived from white skin shaped the trajectory of my life. I’d like to dive heard first into the complex, messy, irrational ways whiteness has shaped by own experience. So, I hope by embarking on this racial autobiographical blog posting adventure, I’ll be able to take an honest and transparent look at myself.

Lately, I feel like I have gotten some small cues from the universe that it is time to take on this topic. One reason is because I am bored as shit at work and need something for my monkey mind to focus on, so I don’t self destruct. Also some wise voices that have thought about this shit for wayyyy longer than I have are pushing me to just start writing my story.

Specifically, there are three quotes from racial justice thinkers that have deeply resonated with me and pushed me to start writing..

First, a professor I know from graduate school recently posted about developing a Critical white Consciousness (CwC). Her post outlined eight ideas for white folks, like me, to consider. She wrote about CwC in a way that didn’t feel like a didactic set of commandments, but rather, a set of principles that can help white people learn how to live in their own skin in a way that feels authentic and honest.

 

While her whole list is worth reading, here are her first two points:

 

  1. Equity starts with autobiography. If we are to interact authentically with people who are often different from us, we must actively reflect on our own stories, biases, privileges, and assumptions. As much as we might not want to admit it, we are the embodiment of our ancestors; the blood on their hands in the name of Americanization, settler colonialism, and whiteness runs through our veins.

 

  1. As genuine allies, we cannot scapegoat racism by denying or hiding from our identities. To consider even a slight possibility that we can be colorblind in a racialized society is like claiming a fish in an aquarium might not be wet. It is what it is—we are all wet—so let’s deal with ourselves with integrity and empathy. And when these dynamics get intense or the information is too much to bear, try not to get defensive, for it is the surest way to miss the lesson.

 

So, what this professor has shown me is that justice starts with understanding our own whiteness. And not in a way that dismissively acknowledges the existence of soooo many white people at a rally or event or in some distant, sterilized or intellectual way, but in a way that acknowledges our own, imperfect, limited and complicit ways we understand ourselves. This type of autobiographical understanding demands we go beyond the general and dive deeply into the specifics. So, hence, the autobiographical blogging adventure will help me tell my own, messy, vulnerable story.

 

Second, Ta-Nahesis Coates once again shook the world with this incisive, in-depth and extremely dense critique of the First White President, Donald Trump.  Everyone who thinks about race posted that shit on Facebook. His brilliant piece ended with this thought—aimed specifically at white journalist and political analyst who had failed to see Trump’s ideology and tactics as white supremacy. He writes: The first white president in American history is also the most dangerous president—and he is made more dangerous still by the fact that those charged with analyzing him cannot name his essential nature, because they too are implicated in it.

 

White folks can’t name what white folks don’t see. So if we, white folks, can’t name the way whiteness had shaped our own lives; then can we ever really claim to see it somewhere else?  Like while we are waiting in line at the grocery store or cringing as we walk past the black homeless man talking to himself? So, I think as allies, we start by making our own whiteness visible—first to ourselves and then to others.

 

Third, one of my sponsors in AA is an elderly, alcoholic Catholic nun. Her presence and words are the antithesis of overly neurotic, hyperactive brain. We were having dinner last night to celebrate Sugar and my nuptials. I started waxing on about Coates work and race and all the other links and articles I had read that week while bored at work. I was spinning around in circles in my head and she said something that cut through the noise. “We have to listen. We want to understand these things.”

Ahhh yes.  We have to want to listen.  That’s it.  I want to write a racial autobiography, so I can listen to myself, because I never really have.

The things I thought about writing.

I didn’t write a blog post last month. There is a whole litany of excuses I could hide behind for not coming to the page and sending something new out into the world: I started a new job, volunteered for a service position for my AA group, my soon to be mother in law was in town, the pile of dirty laundry kept growing, the weeds needed whacking, the dog needed walking.  But the truth is I thought about writing everyday.   The desire to write nipped my ankles, pulled my sleeve, and instead of coming to the page and writing some words, I just thought about writing.  I thought about it a lot. 

Alcoholics have a special ability to overcomplicate things, to overthink simple tasks, to get lost in hum of neurosis and become paralyzed by the little bit of nothing that grow into huge insurmountable somethings.  Alcoholism coupled with workaholism makes for some real mental gymnastics when I think about writing blog posts.  I always want to make some grand conceptual connections or metaphors, and then I get stuck.  Nothing is ever “finished” in my head.   I ride my bike around the city trying to make sense of it all.  Trying to come up with “something.”  So, I have to learn how to keep it simple.  I am working on this.

So, instead of writing about a grand “something,” this month, I want to write about all the things I have thought about writing, and didn’t.

———

I thought about closure and writing about saying goodbye to my two schizophrenic siblings. 

The broken record addiction, relapse and recovery kept spinning over the last two months.  My sister got out of the hospital, had a psychotic break, ran away from home, and disappeared for several days on the streets of Berkeley.  My mom, dad and I panicked.  We feared that she wasn’t safe, that she would get hurt again by someone roaming the streets up there in the Bay.  This incident pushed some dominoes of our shared family trauma, and we all started falling over, reliving the horror of how this all began.  We couldn’t believe that after 10 years of trying to support her, of opening our veins, sacrificing our time, emotions and relationships with each other, that we had ended up right where we started.

I had a long text message exchange with my father while this all went down.  He was too upset to talk, yet wanted to know if I could help my sister, so we spent about an hour exchanging ideas and emotions in little blurbs on our smartphones.  I felt somehow grateful to actually be communicating with my dad.  We don’t talk often, so it was nice to talk about something, to have a shared connection.    

Both my parents were ready to say, “we can’t do this anymore,” which seems to be part of the routine, one of the mental exercises we go through when exhaustion and disbelief overcome.  It’s one of tracks that plays on the skipping CD of addiction, recovery, compliance, and relapse.  This time, a part of my brain really believed that “this is it. This is how it all ends for my sister.”  I felt gutted and relieved at the same time.  The selfish part of me thought maybe it was my turn to get some attention, peace and normalcy.

Giving up isn’t a truth.  It’s just a well worn mental path we travel as we make sense of crazy, because there is no such things as “being done” with your family. 

A few weeks ago, just days after she was released from the hospital, my sister smoked weed, started having delusional thoughts about someone filing her apartment with noxious gas, so she jumped out of a two story window.  She landed with bare feet on a concrete sidewalk and fractured both her heels.  Hospitals, drugs, a plastic boot holding your foot still.  There are no services for homeless, mentally ill people, so she’s at my parents house again.  The record skips, heels break, systems fail, and the vinyl bumps right along.

In recovery, we don’t give up on people.  We have hope.  The sun rises tomorrow and you get another chance.  These sayings are meant to provide some solace, some kind of anchor, something to provide clarity when the water is all muddy. 

In recovery, we have boundaries.  We don’t enable self-destructive behavior.  We cut people off when they chose addiction over love, family, friends or stability. 

You inhale all these truths and have no idea what to do next.

I thought I was going to write about the families I found living in sheds and cars  and how I stopped sleeping and got drunker and drunker and drunker.

I thought about writing about the family that asked me to take their four kids if they were deported.  I thought about the “official document” I frantically typed on school district letterhead addressed to “Immigrations and Customs Enforcement,” as parents waited nervously in our crowded lobby.  My palms were drenched in sweat.  I gleaned my wild thoughts in search of bureaucratic terms that might make sense in an “official, legal document.”   The letter stated that Crashley Brakes needed to be contacted immediately if these two parents were deported, and that she would be granted full custody of their, infant 4 year old, 6 year old and 11 year old.  I spent days and nights wondering how I would take care of 4 children.  I called law offices and learned about how to get temporary power of attorney to care of children whose parents are deported.

I haven’t figured out to how to tell these stories—how to shed some light on the families I met, the stories I heard, the people I miss.  I think about it all the time.  But I guess this paragraph is a start.

I thought I’d write about Charlottesville.  I checked out this weekend.  I was in the woods this weekend looking for a spot to get married.  I didn’t see any headlines until I got to work on Monday.  The headlines are perpetually disturbing in Trump’s America, so we pick and chose what we get really upset about.  The image of the car driving into the peaceful anti-racist protesters ripped a hole in my mind.   I sat in front of my computer, “working,” distracted and disturbed for most of the day.

I wanted to write  about what this moment in time demands of us, us meaning us white people.   I thought I would write about what kind of white people we need to be right here and right now.  

I think about whiteness all the time.  I always want to write about it.  I am just not sure where my thoughts fit within the current dialogue around whiteness.  There is this trend of “listing ways to be a white ally” or people of color, articulately and accurately, calling out whiteness for what it is—a mechanism that has systematically and intentionally annihilated the black body and mind.  There are reminders that us, white women, are complicit and have always supported white supremacy through the accident of being born with white bodies.  I am not sure what I think or where I fit within this conversation.  I am not sure what I want or need to say.  But I think about writing about whiteness.  I think about it a lot. 

Workaholism

“There is a pervasive form of modern violence to which the idealist…most easily succumbs: activism and over-work. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence.

The frenzy of the activist neutralizes her work… It destroys the fruitfulness of her…work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

-Thomas Merton posted by Parker Palmer on On Being.*

——

Every addiction has an origin story.  In recovery, we spend a lot of time telling stories, mapping out where addictive patterns start and end.  As we tell these stories, we learn that addictions do not exist in silos.  Rather, they are all tangled together in a messy web.  One addiction feeds another, one stops and another begins.   Alcoholism, workaholism, codependency, over eating, over exercising, narcotics, the list goes on.

For me, workaholism and alcoholism are so closely linked that they feel like one body, one place.  Both spring from a deep sense of unworthiness that fuels the need to try to prove something or save something or always do something.  It also comes from the love and passion for life—of wanting everything at the same time, of being full of vision and powerful ideas irrespective of the limited resources and time we have.  These two poles, of unworthiness and of a deep love for life, are what gave birth to my burn-out and addictions. 

Below is a story about where my addiction to work began.  It’s about my freshman year of college when I was forced to spend 12 hours a week locked in basement with a bunch of sweaty jocks.   I hope this post helps me understand myself and my story a little better.  I know I am not alone in my struggles with frenzy and overwork, so I made my first “blog list” about women workaholics to try to start pointing out the things we have in common.  I, of course, always want to know what you think, so write me if something resonates.        

——

I run my fingers along the cold concrete blocks.  Rows of perfect rectangles stacked on top of each other form the walls of a cold, damp basement corridor.  A careless coat of thick gray paint covers the walls.  Drops of dried paint gather in between the blocks—thick and overcast, the color of a dreary day, suspended in time.

I pick at these paint globs with my finger nail as I stand in a single file line.  I look down at my dirt stained legs, sweaty tube socks are crinkled around my ankles, the studs of my cleats clink like ice falling into a glass as each stud hits the concrete floor.  I balance a soccer ball between my elbow and hip.  I grip the strap of my backpack and shimmy my shoulders to adjust the weight.  I turn back to the wall and keep picking at the paint absentmindedly.  The mind rests on small things, tiny globs of paint, when it needs to escape.  My feet step forward robotically, pausing each time someone has to “sign in.”  I find a new block to chip away at as I wait my turn. 

In front me stands a rectangular figure, a block of a human standing over 6 feet tall with shoulders blocking my view.  A loose, off-white jersey bunches up around his arm pits, long dark navy shorts hang down past his knees.  Calves as thick as tree trunks poke out of his shorts.  I smell mildew, sweat and unwashed clothes.  Fuck.  A hockey player, I think to myself as I wait in line.  I had to sit next to hockey player in study hall or, as we affectionately called it, “jock jail” yesterday.  My body remembers that stale stench seemed hermetically sealed to their bodies, trapped in their pores like a walls of an ice skating rink.  I cringe.

I approach the sign in desk.  A smiley blonde field hockey player wearing a slick, polyester skirt points to the row where I would have to sign my name.  I scribble on the line, making sure the letters are just legible enough to read.  My eyes dart around the basement room.  A row of cubicles lines the back wall those desks with the wood all around the used for standardized testing. I see an empty cubicle in the corner.  It looks like a place to hide, so I dart across room and claim it as mine.

I pull out the chair, plop down and let cool plastic hold my weight.  I sigh and let go for minute.  I place my backpack on the floor and spread my books out over the white linoleum desk.  I scan the walls of the cubicle trying to settle into my space.  The word FUCK is chiseled into the wooden wall.  Random words, initials and doodles are etched all over the desk top. 

  People graffiti desks in college? Seriously? I wondered.  I was a freshwoman still trying to discern the differences between high school and college, trying to get comfortable in the space between my expectations and my reality.

Shouldn’t college graffiti be more a little more imaginative than the word FUCK?  Or was unimaginative graffiti reserved for just us “jocks” trapped in the stale, basement “jock jail” scribbling random profanities and carving initials into wood as a small act of protest?  Or did some local high school donate their used desks to the poor souls whose SATs scores were less than stellar, yet possessed “special athletic talent”?

I shut down those thoughts and I open my Introduction to Logic textbook.  I just bought the soft cover book two weeks ago and it’s spine was already well worn.  Notes lined the pages.  You could write in the books in college.  The books were yours to keep.  I start hammering out proofs, drawing symbols that look like hieroglyphics, constructing arguments, playing with the building blocks of rationality.  My first philosophy test is this week.  I needed to be ready.  Everyone in the class was talking about how hard Professor Lenke’s tests were.  

I glance up at the clock–three more hours in this basement.  That’s just enough time to finish three problem sets before I have to walk across campus, alone in the dark, sleep for 6 hours and do this all over again. Tomorrow would look a lot like today.  Alarm goes off at 6:30am.  Study. Class. Eat. Study. Practice. Run. Fall. Legs ache. Lungs burn. Sweat.  Push.  Dinner. Jock jail. Repeat.                

Jock jail was a “special place,” a special basement reserved for students who were admitted to college due to their athletic abilities rather than their academic prowess. Our admission was contingent upon agreeing to spend time in a dingy basement studying together, because our GPAs or SATs scores were lower than the rest of the schools.  We had to spend 12 hours a week here.  The sign-in sheet was reviewed by our coaches daily. If you wanted to get out of jock jail, you had to get at least a 3.0 the first semester of your freshman year.  So, I drilled on.  Problem set after problem set determined to prove that I deserved to be at that college.

In school, I never felt smart.  A leader?  Definitely.  A hardworking, responsible student?  Yes.  Smart? Definitely not.  Standardized test score constantly filtered me into remedial classes and low performing student groups.  I got into gifted programs and honors English and History classes mostly because my mom was a fierce advocate and demanded that the administration let me in. 

This felt like my big secret.  It made me feel undeserving as I sat in class full of over-achieving, smart students.  When would someone find out that I was a phony?  That I didn’t actually deserve to the there, at that desk, with these smart students?     

Jock jail was a continuation of this legacy of intellectual unworthiness.  Sitting in that basement cubicle, I knew that I wasn’t as smart as everyone else at my college. I also knew I was capable of working really, really hard.  If I worked really hard, people would notice me, acknowledge me, reward me. 

So, that’s what I did.  I worked.  A lot.  Alarm goes off at 6:30am.  Study. Class. Eat. Study. Practice. Run. Fall. Leg ache. Lungs burn. Sweat.  Push.  Dinner. Jock jail. Repeat.

Everyone has an internal rhythm–a beat that moves them through the world.  Sitting in that cubicle in jock jail freshman year,  I started to tick a little faster.  It was like something had pushed the metronome inside me and it just started swinging, back and forth,back and forth.  Ticking. Tocking. Ticking. Tocking.  And all I could do was try to keep up with my own pace.

I earned a 3.6 that semester, made the dean’s list, was recommended for the honors program due to my worth ethic, and got out of jock jail. 

The next semester the metronome slowed down a bit.  I enrolled in some elective courses and took a deep dive in Eastern Philosophy.  I started to feel a sense of openness that college brings.  I traded in my cleats for Birkenstocks and got a tattoo of a Bodhi leaf on on my foot.  

Just as I started slowing down, the US bombed Iraq.  I remember sitting on the floor of my college dorm watching the first bombs fall on our tiny low-definition color T.V.  Now, we were at war. I felt like it was my full time job to try to stop it.  Protests, marches, classes, the constantly wondering why I had to spend time chasing a soccer ball around just to feel like I deserved to be at college.  

The metronome starting swinging faster again.  My tempo started picking up.  And once again, I was off. 

———-

This sense of needing to prove something, of working to help “solve social injustices,” and of never really being able to slow down started up again in graduate school.  It was also right around the time my sister got really sick.  Stepping on a university campus, I was once again filled with a sense of inadequacy.   This sense of unworthiness coupled with the collapse of my family started an inner frenzy that has followed me for the past 8 years.

While recovery has helped me calm down, quit drinking, figure out who I am on the inside,  I still feel a nagging, albeit less pungent, sense of needing to “do something”: find the next job, house, baby, marriage, recipe, etc.  And I am not the only one who feels this way.   

Overworked and overwhelmed is the new normal—especially for the women in my life.  My tribe of women, most whom are in there mid thirties, seem to be squeezed ever so tightly.  Call a friend for coffee and she’ll perhaps schedule you for 3 weeks out.  Ask a friend how she is and there is a the inevitable response: “I’m good.  So busy.  Every weekend this summer is already booked!” 

How did we get here—to this place of nonstop busyness?  What do we do now?  Below are a few of the things I think we—the overworked women of the the world—have in common.  So, here is a little bit of what I see:   

1.  We want everything at the same time.   I am lucky enough to be surrounded by a tribe of women who are big dreamers, doers, idealists.  We love life and we want so much of it that we can’t let anything go.  Our visions are larger than a 24 hour day will allow.  But this doesn’t stop us for trying to do it all. We have the baby, we take the trip, we swipe right, we start the farm, we teach the class, we show up for the big events in each others lives, the birthdays, weddings, etc. we go, go, go and go. 

Why?  Because it hurts our soul to think about giving up any one of these things.  We love everything and are mad to do it all.  Yet, this constant going, the constant expending comes at cost. Intangible things, moments, thoughts, the inner wisdom that makes work fruitful, slips away, and I think we all feel it–even though we can’t quite name it or hold it.  It’s a nebulous inertia of disconnection, discontent.   

2.   Healthcare.  Fucking healthcare.  This is the not so invisible force that guides so many of the decisions women (and men) have to make.  We’d like to work less, to pursue some non-traditional, creative paths.  We’d prefer to be making podcasts than writing reports about nitrogen.  Yet, we can’t.  Want to work part-time?  Make sure you don’t get sick or pregnant. Want to start that amazing organization you always dreamed of?  Good luck bringing in enough capital to provide health insurance for you and your family and your employees.  Want to take some time off to work on your farm or write that book?  I hope your partner has a job in finance. (S/He probably doesn’t.)   

3. Brilliant. Educated. Disillusioned. We’ve earned masters degrees and done some commendable stuff.  As our careers move forward and now, we find ourselves stuck.  After being in the professional working world for over a decade, most of us women in our mid thirties have had experiences in multiple organizations and sectors.  We dabbled in higher education and research, spent a few years working for that nonprofit, tried our hand at lobbying or worked for the government agency.  At this point, it would be nice if one of these sectors “stuck,”  if one of these 9-5 health insurance providing gigs would be a little more satisfying or at least, take up less of our time.  But, for many of us, we leave the office every day feeling compromised, conflicted and drained. The reason we started doing the work in the first place, to save the farmland or the children or (insert mission here) just doesn’t stack up against the incredible inefficiencies or horrid office culture or blood sucking boss that we encounter at our 9-5.

4.   We are all trying to find another job.  The disillusionment we feel with our current 9-5 leads has 2 outcomes: 1) we are all looking for another job, yet all of these “other jobs” suck.  We spend countless hours of “free time” scanning indeed.com, looking for an affordable way out, yet it’s increasingly hard to find.

For us, the ambitious, over working types, “big jobs” often sound really enticing—leading large teams, writing, publishing, setting strategic direction, managing big budgets, etc.  But we aren’t there yet.  We simply don’t have the years of experience in part, because we move around so much and also, because we are in a sort of in-between phase in our careers.  We aren’t executive directors, but this middle management program coordination is not quite enough  So, we keep looking, searching, applying, pouring energy into cover letters and resumes. 

2)  For those of us that aren’t looking for a new job, we are busy “hiding out.”  We are trying to get yet another degree or certification that will lead to this imaginary dream job.  Or we immerse ourselves in the academia and intellectualism, forever the graduate student pursuing the PhD, because we are scared of what’s “out there”.  Either way, going to school, furthering our education, provides a sort of temporary respite.  Yet, it also makes us feel stuck.      

5.  California: We love you and we can’t afford you.  My tribe of women all live in the great republic of California—where civil liberties are preserved, where Jerry Brown launches his own damn satellites, where innovation, possibility and technology fuel the world, where diversity reigns and immigrants make our state what it is today.  As I ride my bike past the Capitol on the way to this coffee shop, I feel an intangible sense of pride and belonging.  My state feels like a stronghold of sensibility in a world that is unrecognizable.     

My tribe of women loves California and we are racing to keep up, to try to stay here, raise a family here or buy a home here or just rent a tiny fucking apartment.  Some of us got lucky.  Our families have been here for years, so we already own homes. We come from wealth or we married into it, so we managed to buy a house or piece of land. 

For the rest of us, the teachers who came from a middle class background or transplants trying to make it “on our own,”  we are racing to try to keep up—to save money, to pay down our debts, to try to get a toehold on a real estate market that is unpredictable and skyrocketing.  That sense of anxiety, the fear of having to leave here, never really leaves us. It tosses and turns within us. 

6.  We are active, but are we still activists?  My tribe is of woman is driven by big questions: are we, in fact, living an honest and good life?  Are we doing the most we can with our privilege to create a more just and equitable society?  Are we showing up in the right ways for the right people? Are we, in fact, doing everything we can at this critical moment in history where so much is at stake?

These questions roll around in our heads though I am not sure we are talking to each other about them.  Right now, these questions are making us uneasy.  With all of this moving forward, with all of this frenzy, it’s easy to lose sight of what drives us, what brought us together as friends and comadres in the first place, of the vision we had for who we might me and how we might show up in the world for each other and for others.  These questions are indispensable and are also a double edged sword the constant questioning and wondering, makes us overcommit, feel inadequate and take on more.  That is, if we aren’t careful.

Right now, I am trying to stay rooted in the belief that self-care is, in fact, a radical, political act.  As a person that is prone to movement, to activism and overwork, this is an incredible challenge.  I am trying to believe that recovering, slowing down and finding the “inner wisdom that makes work fruitful” is the most important thing I can do right now.  It’s a nebulous space, indeed.  One that makes me feel whole at times and also incredibly uncomfortable and anxious. 

I have been thinking of getting a new tattoo: Easy does it.  I can see the cursive words running down my forearm when I think about it.  It’s one of those sayings people in AA hold dear.  But for now, I will continue the hard work of doing nothing. The hard work of learning how to rest.  Rest here, dear Crashley.  Rest here.        

resthere.jpg* Photo and quote stolen from Parker Palmer, who stole it fro Thomas Merton and posted it on the amazing On Being blog.  See: https://onbeing.org/blog/the-modern-violence-of-over-work/

And, of course, Momo, post neutering.  What a handsome boy!

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