On Fear, Anti-Semitism, Abolition and Imagining

When we first saw the Christians who we didn’t yet realize were Christians, our reaction was annoyance.

“Why are they standing outside?” my friend muttered to me as we approached.

“I know there was a singing thing before service, but I thought it was indoors,” I said.

“Ugh,” Eli continued. “It’s too cold to be out here.”

We were walking arm in arm down 50th Avenue in South Minneapolis, toward kabbalat Shabbat services at Shir Tikvah. It’s a ritual that has not been especially regular for either of us lately, but that day we’d both been part of text threads with fellow young, radical, mostly queer Jews about going. It was the first Shabbat after the Pittsburgh shooting, the first chance for many of us to be in Jewish space.

It wasn’t until we had (cautiously) stepped midway through the circle of people outside that I registered what was happening: that the white faces and warmly dressed, candle-wielding bodies didn’t look like me, or familiar, and weren’t headed in. “Oh,” I blurted, a little too loud: “they’re Christians!”

By the time we got inside, it was standing room only: the crowd leaked out from the sanctuary and into the oneg hall. We were wending our way toward the back when we spotted our people, arms waved high from their perch on the bema. Once there, I embraced my friend Abbie (a moment bizarrely captured by local media) and let loose the full store of layered, complicated, conflicting emotion that had been building all week. (“The Christians,” I kept stammering. “I can’t believe the Christians.”)

For the duration of the service, as we mourned recent deaths and celebrated a new marriage and a new life, our little pocket of close and loose friends (what one Rabbi termed a “human tangle”) leaned and snuggled against one another like weepy puppies, weary from the weight of last weeks and relieved to be, for some moments, together.

**

As you know if you follow me on social media, I’ve been organizing lately with a coalition of folks pressuring Minneapolis to divest from our (historically mega-funded) police departments and invest in (historically under-funded) resources like low-income housing and other, non-police-led safety strategies.

In the last years, like many who have looked to the Black Lives Matter movement for leadership, (and like many locally who’ve benefitted from the scholarship and resources of MPD150) I’ve become persuaded by the logic of abolition: once you recognize that police departments descend from slave patrols, that when they kill black people without accountability they are in fact operating exactly as intended, that the history of police departments here and elsewhere is scaffolded with failed attempts at reform and persistent PR campaigns, it becomes pretty difficult not to make the concession: we can’t reform ourselves out of an oppressive machinery. We must imagine another way.

As you also may have seen, I made the (personal) decision to not attend a vigil earlier last week in St. Paul, in part because of police presence. To be clear: while that presence indeed upset me, I don’t hold judgment toward those who chose it, or toward my many community mates who decided to stay in spite of it. I recognize that, while some communities (often poor and non-white) have created alternatives to policing for centuries, much work remains to envision and create viable alternatives.

So it was striking, and surely part of what triggered my emotional reaction Friday night, that the assembly of neighbors holding candles–awkward stares notwithstanding–triggered what I am sure it is not a stretch to describe as the opposite reaction I felt upon seeing police earlier that week: in contrast to feelings of anxiety, isolation and stress, I felt warmth, connection, overwhelming gratitude and love.

***

Growing up in Brooklyn, being Jewish didn’t come with feelings of otherness. White, Ashkenazi, neurotic Jews are a core archetype of New York’s dominant culture, and my experience of the city was segregated enough that I rarely occupied spaces in which I didn’t feel I belonged.

Like many Jewish and non-Jewish Americans: I considered anti-Semitism historical.

In recent years, living outside New York and delving deeper into anti-oppression education and activism, I’ve come to learn more about anti-Jewish oppression’s pernicious pattern: how it’s cyclical instead of constant, how it enables Jews to achieve a level of power and prosperity in order to scapegoat us when things, as they inevitably do under white supremacy and capitalism, get bad.

And still, as I cried that night during services, I felt shame: for my friends and neighbors who are black, seeing people killed for being who they are is nothing new. It is, in fact, routine. What right do I have to react upon seeing this happen to people like me for the first time in my country, in my lifetime? How many times have I failed to show up for terror enacted upon other communities–how could I expect or deserve any solidarity now?

Along with that shame, this coursed through me, too: a knowledge of the particular and ancient history of Jewish people being persecuted; how that memory lives not only in our conscious minds but in the fascia of our bodies, in the depths of our nervous systems. Memory that instances of anti-Semitic violence often trigger, and can manifest as intense, visceral fear.

Like many, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the intensity of that fear, and about how we can hold and honor it without enacting more violence both within and outside our communities.

Without, in other words, replicating past and persistent patterns.

**

Looking around during services, I felt as though I could see our Jewish American community’s investment in whiteness and white supremacy on display.

In those of us stumbling through the longer, transliterated prayers, I could see the way in which our ancestors, in bargaining for entry into (the invented category of) whiteness, had assimilated: given up their traditions and practices so their children could be seen as American, not other.

In the fear writ on the (mostly white) faces, I could see the way in which that bargain’s promise–that we, white American Jews, would let our whiteness grant us not only a sense of inherent superiority, but of safety, of fundamental security and protection by the state–had been so powerfully ruptured.

**

Once, while teaching a writing class at the Stillwater public library, I implored a woman who was hesitant to share her work to do so. “It’s a safe space,” I told her. She looked at me like I had just assured her that ice cream would prevent cancer or cure colds. As I soon after realized, it was a preposterous thing to say. Who the heck am I to tell her, to tell anyone, that they feel safe?

Indeed, as I’ve now learned from POC scholars, the term “safe space” is particularly problematic in the context of racial dialogue: such spaces are never truly safe for POC, and the promise of safety for white people reinforces our learned entitlement to comfort—an entitlement that can translate to a forceful weapon of white supremacy. (Put another way: maintaining white people’s comfort means maintaining the status quo.)

Since then, when teaching or facilitating, I am careful not to invoke the term “safe space”: like many promises of safety, it is, in fact, misleading. Instead, I suggest that the extent to which each person will feel safe to share and be vulnerable will hinge on a combination of individual lived experiences and the degree to which we feel connected to one another.

This principle, of course, extends to the community at large: the more we feel connected to one another, the safer we are likely to feel, and to be.

It’s no coincidence, I don’t think, that racist capitalism perpetuates itself upon the activation of collective fear at the same time that it enables a culture of individualism in which we are taught to value self-sufficiency, not interdependence.

What was evident at Shir Tikvah that night is how deeply our bodies and hearts know better: how instinctively we, in fact, know that we are meant to live interdependently, that we are meant to lean on and support one another, that what fosters genuine safety is community.

And yet: “genuine safety” isn’t a thing. As Tara Brach reminded me the other day, some measure of fear is human and healthy; we can’t create an existence in which we don’t experience any danger or feel any fear.

Our challenge, then (as she also helped me remember), is to practice more mindfully and generously tolerating the uncomfortable, inevitable experience of fear. Our challenge is to hold our (sometimes rational, sometimes not) fear, to sit with it; not to avoid it by grasping for the false comforts we’re taught to seek: whiteness, isolation, police. 

Like many things, it is easier to tolerate discomfort in community. It’s also easier, and more joyful, to imagine radical possibilities with beloveds beside.

I don’t know any of the answers: I don’t know how we undo all the oppressions, what it will look like to find full liberation or how we will get there. I do know that for me, in this moment, amidst so much violence and injustice–the great majority from which I am safe, what sustains me is seeking communities committed to imagining other possibilities: whether they be alternatives to police, re-distributing resources in the community, or small ways to resist individualism and struggle toward interdependence.

It shouldn’t be a radical thing to say we need one another. But in many ways, in the face of the (increasingly menacing) dominant culture, leaning into that truth feels like the most radical thing we can do.

 

On Performing, Being Authentic, the Confusion In Between

My minor existential crisis about whether to attend Rosh Hoshanah services began at approximately 11:53 pm the night before.

At said time I was lying in bed, engaged with one of those nightly rituals I perpetually intend to stop and perpetually don’t of scrolling through social media before sleep, when I came across a photo of a friend who–inhabiting the role of “better Jew,” for the evening at least–had managed not only to remember but also to attend Erev Rosh services that night. Adding insult to injury, she had done so with friends.

Feelings of envy, shame and insecurity narrowed toward the particular question of whether I should attend the next day’s service: one being held, as High Holy Days across the Diaspora often are, in a suburban event center several freeways away.

I typed a scurry of texts to friends I thought might be going. Realized it was past midnight and I had better stop. Slept. Woke up, checked responses, replied, typed some more.

By the time I folded into the backseat of a friend’s car after biking two miles to meet her and her wife outside a South Minneapolis bodywork studio, I let out a sigh and explained that the trajectory of my deliberation could effectively illustrate my generally ambivalent, often tortured relationship with being Jewish.

Here’s one fact: about a year ago, some of my weekday activities included phone calls to admissions offices at Rabbinical schools. Here’s another: for more years of my adulthood than not, I’ve not regularly participated in organized religion.

(Like many) I feel deeply called to certain things that religion can hold: spirituality, community, reflection, ritual, a sense of tradition and connection to past.

And (like many) I feel deeply conflicted about others: Israel, for one, and (related) exclusionary forms of tribalism, organizations (like synagogues and nonprofits, religious or otherwise) that capitalism pushes to prioritize their own sustainability, forms of collective faith that can feel irrelevant, obscure and, often, inauthentic.

*

During introductions at a recent anti-oppression workshop, someone explained that what they disliked about such spaces was the way in which they tended to feel performative; their intro, of course, felt exactly that–steeped in the desire to be perceived a certain way.

I think of that moment often, and I thought of it again at services as, in an overstimulated and decaffeinated haze, I observed the (almost all white, Ashkenazi) Jewish masses strut and stumble into the spacious, (rather viciously) open Earle Brown Heritage Center: sheathed in suits and jackets and tallit and tights, I watched as we all engaged in the singular performance of High Holy Day ritual: that of sizing one another up. Of judging. Of comparing our relative worth and relative Jewishness.

For myself and many other Jews I know, practicing collective faith can often feel like performance. Assembled in our rows of stackable chairs, so many expressions of this identity manifest outward: from the paraphernalia of shawls and caps to the fluency of spoken and sung prayers to the physical markers of hair texture, skin color, facial features– we can so easily hone in on ways that fellow congregants do or don’t fit our expectations of what it means to be, or to perform, Jewishness.

*

The night before, instead of attending services, I’d attended a workshop for white allies led by a beloved, Twin Cities-based black activist and leader. The room, at a coffee shop in St. Paul, felt thick with a particular kind of tension: the kind that surfaces when (eager, well-meaning) white people surround POC leaders. It’s textured with numerous layers and vectors and that generates a species of discomfort likely necessary (not just to experience but to examine–no one said this work was quick) to dismantle white supremacy.

The tension, at least as I understand it, is rooted in some messy, identity-based calculus: I see myself a certain way, I want others to see myself this way, too; I don’t want to appear as though I care what others think but I do, I care more about what [insert POC leader] thinks of me than these other white people, but that doesn’t feel great, etc.

I felt reminded of that tension at shul the next day: again, all of us negotiating various, complicated ways in which we see ourselves and want to be seen.

And that’s the thing: when one feels firmly attached to a particular identity, I think it’s pretty natural to desire for that identity to be perceived. I don’t think that desire is purely bad: it’s deeply tied, rather, to what might be the most universal and powerful human urge–to belong.

When we look around in faith or movement spaces and measure ourselves against others, what we’re also doing is saying: accept me, don’t cast me out, I belong here, with you. 

*

At a recent lunch with a female writer friend, we shared about ways in which each of us is cautious about publicly expressing political rage: not because we don’t feel rage, but because of how that expression could be perceived.

For me, as a white woman (aka the demographic that elected Trump and has enabled white supremacy forever), I feel like it can look ridiculous to express (read: perform) indignance about oppression when so many of us have been complacent and complicit for so long: I can imagine (and, I think, have observed) how such expressions can trigger resentment, anger and frustration among women of color–for whom rage (and the awareness of assorted oppressions driving it) is nothing new.

My friend is a black woman. She reflected on how she sees non-black women of color express rage on social media more assertively than she feels she can: “If I were to say those things,” she chuckled, “I’d incite riots.”

In different ways (and with notably different stakes), she and I were expressing a reluctance to share our genuine emotions due to how they would likely be seen.

That conversation reminded me of how tricky is to traffic in accusations of behavior that is “performative”–as though that isn’t something all of us do, all the time. In ways large and small, just and unjust, we all adapt our behaviors and our speech to our context. We always calibrate, to an extent, based on who we’re with and what we might want them to think or know. 

That doesn’t mean those calibrations aren’t ever misguided, or shouldn’t ever be challenged. But unless we’re sure someone is driven purely by how they want to be seen, I think we ought to be pretty cautious about critiquing them.

It’s likely a lot of others in that ally training and a lot of others in that shul had some awareness and perhaps some anxiety about how they were being perceived. But it’s also likely that most of them (at least those not schlepped by relatives) were there because of a genuine personal interest in dismantling white supremacy, or being part of a faith practice and community.

Put another way: I have a hard enough time teasing through the layers of my own motives when it comes to how I want to move through the world. Far be it for me to make assumptions about what’s driving anyone else.

Learning, Unlearning, Ella Baker, Activism and (Ongoing) Stories of Self

“So, how’d you get here?”

The young organizer and I draped astride one another in the middle of a cavernous labor office in Northeast Minneapolis. It was the end of one of several hours-long trainings for a civil disobedience action planned for Superbowl Sunday—brilliantly organized by Black Visions Collective and BLM leaders from around the country.

With 36 hours remaining until the action, the space felt full with adrenaline and empty any sense of time.

On Sunday, seventeen of us (mostly white) activists would use our bodies and PVC pipes to block light rail tracks in below-zero temperatures while a crew of black activist leaders performed a powerful sketch listing demands that included defunding police and investing in schools.

During the action, I would engage in something of a tussle with an aggressive transit cop and get taunted by a snarky member of MPD; my feet would get so cold I’d have to have someone sit on them, and I’d spend a few hours handcuffed on a bus.

And yet: nothing in the course of the overall (transformative) experience prompted more visceral panic than his question.

In it, I heard not only an explanation for how I’d gotten there that night; I heard, also, a deeper inquiry: What the hell took you (class-privileged white girl) so long? Where the hell have you (class-privileged white girl) been? And, what the hell have you (you get the gist) been doing all this time that you weren’t on the front lines, fighting for justice?

In the moment, I mumbled about having a white body and not having to teach on Tuesday, about trainings and friends, an activist partner, Trump.

Six months later, I feel—as I did then—extremely clear about my commitment to racial justice work as a central, active priority of my life.

I am still unclear about why I didn’t before.

           ***

A few weeks after the action, that organizer and I met up for coffee. The question came up again.

This time I might have been slightly more coherent: I emphasized the significance of a pair of anti-racism trainings I’d had the privilege to do—one, for teachers, at a community college where I then taught, and another, for community members, with a group called ASDIC. (I’ve mentioned both here.)

I also stressed the value of relationships: how, before, I hadn’t known folks to invite me into the room, and now I did. I had only learned about the action, after all, due to showing up to an organizing meeting; I’d only shown up to that organizing meeting because I’d been invited via relationship. I think relationships are critical to movement work—often, what enables us to show up.

But relationships don’t create themselves. And the truth is that most of the relationships I’ve built with movement friends are the result of showing up for things, not only the cause.

Which just returns me to that question: what made me start to show up?

As is often the case: my search for understanding might reveal more about the search itself than any concrete answer.

 

“I mean,” I said over coffee. “It’s not like my politics have really changed.”

I had been telling him about the second anti-racism training, which I entered into without much humility: thinking I would use it as a pathway to becoming an anti-racism facilitator myself.

I didn’t, I told him, anticipate how much I would actually learn.

I didn’t anticipate that the circle would enable me to grasp, on a level I never had before, how—throughout American history—those in power have weaponized racism to keep power and maintain economic inequality. Or how much my own whiteness (and that of my European Jewish ancestors) has shaped my (and our) experience and opportunities. Certainly, I didn’t have the analysis I do now in regard to the urgency of dismantling capitalism, and the (constructed) notion of whiteness itself.

I didn’t anticipate the moment, during that circle, when I would recognize that—given what I now understand about our history and present, and the numerous privileges that enabled me to gain that knowledge—I could no longer spiritually exist in right relationship with myself if I didn’t commit to centering racial justice work.

I know, in other words, how transformative that circle was. I knew it then, too.

And, yet, even as I shared that story, I simultaneously held onto a narrative in which I hadn’t really changed.

 ***

 In her new book, White Fragility, the well-known, white-bodied racial justice trainer Robin DiAngelo enumerates obstacles for white folks to talking effectively about race. One of them is what she terms the “good/bad binary”: as in, the notion that you’re “good” if you’re not racist, and “bad” if you are.

This binary is made more problematic by the way we have adapted the term “racist” to mean someone who is overtly, violently prejudiced: who consciously believes that whites are inherently superior. (A belief, DiAngelo insists, that socialization within Western society instills, more or less consciously, in all of us.)

“If, as a white person,” DiAngelo writes, “I conceptualize racism as a binary and I place myself on the ‘not racist’ side, what further action is required of me? No action is required, because I am not a racist. Therefore, racism is not my problem; it doesn’t concern me and there is nothing further I need to do.”

In other words: a naïve understanding of racism lets whites absolve ourselves of responsibility, and prevents us from interrogating ways in which our behavior—conscious or not, intentional or not—is complicit.

As with most ideas into which we are conditioned, the recognition that something is bullshit does not fully remove it from one’s psyche—hence the emphasis in justice work on continuous “unlearning.”

That I know the “good/bad” binary is nonsense, then, does not mean I’ve fully let it go: and so, on some level, I still connect an admission of how much I’ve actually learned and changed with the simplistic notion that while I’m “good” now, I was “bad” before—a notion that is both unhelpful and untrue.

There is no question that my politics have evolved, drastically: three years ago, when I started the 555 reading series, the first lineup was five white writers; now, I dedicate significant time to organizing white writers to prevent all-white readings from ever taking place. Three years ago I felt fine about prioritizing my own writing, and limiting my subject matter to family and relationships; now, I am less focused on my own work, and committed to bringing a critical racial lens to what work I do attempt. Three years ago I got my news from The New York Times and NPR; now I listen religiously to Democracy Now!

To challenge that “good”/”bad” binary isn’t to absolve myself for having been inactive before: rather, I do hold myself accountable for failing, all those years, to develop what I now see as a crucial political and racial analysis, for giving myself a pass because I didn’t identify as an activist. But that failure doesn’t mean I was “bad”: it means I am an all-too-typical product of a white supremacist culture that emphasizes individuals over the collective and complacency over engagement—a culture I now feel committed to (work to) transform. Also true: that commitment doesn’t make me “good”: white supremacy is in my body, as it’s in all of ours, and as I undertake the endless work of dismantling it, in myself and elsewhere, I know there are ways in which I continue to perpetuate harm.

           ***

In addition to all the unlearning, of course, I also recognize my need for so much learning: it is one thing to recognize that what I learned about movement history, for example, was watered down, skeletal and sanitized; it’s another to fill in those gaps.

I am just beginning.

One name I hadn’t heard until entering movement spaces is that of Ella Baker: a radical black freedom fighter held up by contemporary activists for her before-her-time feminism, intersectional lens, commitment to relational organizing, and rejection of charismatic leadership over grassroots movement building. (Perhaps her lack of synergy with MLK Jr., her contemporary, is part of why she isn’t more widely known.)

Her biographer is Barbara Ransby: a remarkable black historian and activist in her own right. Ransby’s introductory comments on the struggle to craft an arc of Baker’s life and activism connected with the challenges I’ve found in charting my own.

“Memories fade,” Ransby writes, “ideas change, and thus what we thought we felt or did at the time is filtered through the lens of our ongoing sense of ourselves.”

At the risk of appearing to compare myself with an American icon, the comment resonates: I can attempt to tell a story now, but it is with a lens that I know will continue to shift over time. Put another way: whatever narrative of self I might construct in a given moment is likely to reveal more about that moment than the subject itself.

One thing that struck me in reading about Baker is how she privileged relationships over any organizational or party ties. I think that relates to how, too, her views unapologetically evolved over time: the broad cause of social change was her only fixed loyalty, and she never allowed allegiance to a particular philosophy or leader or even organization—most see her as the most influential adviser to SNCC—to eclipse those core values or overly determine her path.

I appreciate this as a strategic approach to movement work: by definition, most organizations and even ideologies have an inherent investment in their own sustainability.  But also as a way of being more broadly: as a recognition that perhaps (I write as a women once described as “tofu”) the most sacred value is in being open, open to those views and ideas and people we do have the luck to encounter, and that fixed loyalties, whether to ideas or individuals, can easily hinder that openness.

There is a way, then, in which my claim to that organizer (now a friend) wasn’t false: my core value of social justice and equality hasn’t changed, what has is my understanding of how much and what work is needed to get there, and my place within that work; before, that (limited) understanding allowed my passivity; now, I see my role as active and urgent.

Regardless of how that understanding changed, what matters to me now is to stay committed: to maintain and expand my relationships with fellow activists who can keep me accountable and engaged.

As I do, I am thankful to those who have schooled me on Baker’s wisdom—much of which I hope to hold close.

On of her better known quotes is from her eulogy of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner—the three SNCC activists abducted and killed during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964.

“Until the killing of black mothers’ sons is as important as the killing of white mothers’ sons,” she said, “we who believe in freedom cannot rest.”

 

 

 

On Being Bread for Each Other

“Who are you going to take care of when you get home?”

My grandmother leaned forward as I tucked a thin white hospital blanket around her exposed shoulders.

Her voice was thin, her breath short; she’d been at New York Presbytarian for about a week by then, with symptoms of bronchitis tied to a host of other, more serious concerns. Four days earlier, I’d gotten on a plane from Seattle—where I’d been visiting friends—after a phone call from my mother suggested things were dire.

“I don’t know,” I shrugged, collapsed back down into a square leather chair. “Myself?”

A week before I flew to New York, Rob had moved to Duluth—in pursuit of a lifelong dream. (Calm down: not the city itself, but one the city happens to contain.) He may stay, may not. We may stay coupled, may not.

Either way: for the next few months, I will be mostly in Minneapolis, mostly alone.

For those few days in Manhattan, I was not. I was, primarily, by my grandmother’s bedside: spooning her applesauce, holding paper cups of ice water and ginger ale to her (lipsticked) mouth, fetching her the daily Times and tracking down displaced reading material. (“How is she doing?” My mother texted after my grandmother, who I have always called Susie, emerged from a relatively minor procedure. “Well,” I wrote back. “Her biggest concern is what happened to her New York magazine.”)  

I am no hero: it is my parents, mostly, and my mother, most of all, who have been her true caretakers throughout the course of these recent health struggles. My presence allowed them a brief respite, some capacity to attend to their respective work demands, but the afternoon I left, they were back by her side—as they still are.

Too, that I could get there in the first place was a product of privilege—my parents ability to subsidize a last-minute, cross-country airfare; my flexibility as a college teacher to easily cancel the first day of class.

And being with Susie, I must add, is no chore: among her many miraculous traits is the capacity, even with her body under multi-pronged attack, to maintain a dry humor; upon the departure from her room of a rather aggressively handsome cardiologist: “They know,” she deadpanned, “to send me the good-looking ones.”

All this aside: my presence, while appreciated, felt like a gift to myself as much as anyone else.

*

 “I think our deepest human desire is to give ourselves to each other as a source of physical, emotional and spiritual growth… Isn’t ‘tasting’ the best word to express the experience of intimacy? Don’t lovers in their ecstatic moments experience their love as a desire to eat and drink each other? As the Beloved ones, our greatest fulfillment lies in becoming bread for the world. That is the most intimate expression of our deepest desire to give ourselves to each other.”

At a recent retreat where I spent two nights, one of them with Rob, we stumbled on books by the late Christian theologian Henri Nouwen.

Just days earlier, a friend had told me about Nouwen, a former professor of his at Yale Divinity, so the books appearance felt serendipitous—and Rob and I spent that evening reading passages together. What’s quoted above is one of many that stuck out.

One theme Nouwen touches on is the tension between solitude and community: how, while connection is what nourishes and sustains us, we must also seek to be comfortable in solitude—must avoid being driven, blindly, by the (very human) fear of being alone.

“The movement from loneliness to solitude,” Nouwen writes, “…is the beginning of any spiritual life because it is the movement from the restless senses to the restful spirit, from the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, from the fearful clinging to the fearless play.”

This theme has felt resonant lately: as I enter into a period of straddling isolation and partnership, as I contemplate shifting commitments to different communities and paths. 

I believe connection—our capacity to forge intimacy with others—is our primary purpose; and, that it is through seeking authentic intimacy with others that we can come closer to knowing our true selves.

Knowing ourselves isn’t the end goal in and of itself, of course—but self-knowledge is what allows us an understanding of what gifts we can offer each other; how, as Nouwen puts it, we can provide “bread for the world.” 

Bread that, as my time with my grandmother reminded me, feeds ourselves as much as it feeds those for whom we care.   

*

The day before Rob moved to Duluth, I read on the couch while he went through boxes of old papers and things.

At one point he tossed over a stack of print photographs: from a post-college summer he spent in New Jersey, doing a social justice-focused fellowship. I’d heard bits about it, but not much.

As I flipped through, I teared up: he looked so young and so innocent, so cute; the following day signaled not just a move for him but uncertainty for us; I was (it turned out) pre-menstrual.

Too, as I explained on the drive to dinner, there was (is, perhaps, always) something melancholy in the reminder that the person to whom you feel most connected, by whom you feel most seen and most known—that this person has lived many lives without you.

Rob met my observation playfully—with a look that translates, roughly, to: My god Elizabeth could you possibly perform more of a caricature of yourself than you are right now??

“She has to know everything!” he teased.

Indeed, one of my favorite quotes comes from a Tim O’Brien craft essay I’m sure I’ve mentioned before here: the simple statement that we will never know what it’s like inside another person’s head, how compelling it is to try, how tragic it can feel that we’ll always fail.

But the sadness those pictures triggered was accompanied by a sweetness and warmth: by the feeling that I am still beset with the same excitement I was initially: the feeling of omigod I want to know everything about this person!

And, regardless of that desire’s impossibility—or perhaps, because of it—the desire itself feels joyful, enlivening.

That desire, as it relates to Rob, and to others who I have, do and will encounter continuously—fellow spiritual seekers (folks who often take the form of activists and poets)—comforts me. Because while it may surface as a sort of grasping, a reaching out, it also contains its own nourishment—a gift that doesn’t require anything in return. 

*

It felt sad coming back from New York to a home where my partner is not. Where I didn’t have anyone, besides myself, to care for.

I won’t pretend there isn’t pain in the loneliness I feel now. There is.

But there is also relief: in taking a Thursday night after a rollercoaster week to lie on my couch and read a novel. To attend an organizing meeting early on a weekend morning without feeling pulled to stay snuggled in bed. To visit a Saturday night resistance singalong without the competing option of a date night. In taking a trip to the co-op with the express intention of spending $30 on rose-scented lotions (mission achieved) because aromas, I have discovered in advanced age, are a powerful mood-lifter and these days my moods could use some help.

There is warmth, in other words, and maybe even joy, in caring for myself—knowing that work equips me, down the road, to care more fully, more authentically, for those I have the privilege to love.

 

 

On Grasping, Contentedness, Whiteness and Being (Forever) “Half-Woke”

“What about you? Are you content?”

My friend E and I were taking a walk, catching up at the end of summer–most of which she had spent away.

E is one of my closest friends, and though we aren’t great at keeping up regular contact while apart, her question took me aback: shouldn’t she know whether I’m content?

Also: shouldn’t I know?

Am I content?

Do I–should I want to be?

“Um, I guess so,” I think I said, then. I mumbled something about how I was feeling overwhelmed, per usual; unstable, per usual; uncertain in assorted ways about teaching and writing and community–but also happy, in many moments, finding nourishment in relationships and art and work, whatever that all means.

*

For the last six Saturday mornings, and for four more to come, I have and will sit in a circle with a group of adults in a room at a church in north Minneapolis.

We gather there to discuss texts, watch videos, share personal stories: to work toward a deepened knowledge of this country’s racist history, and toward unlearning the racist conditioning we’ve all–all of us–received.

I’ve been appreciating that space. And feeling drained by it. Sometimes frustrated. Always thankful and humbled, often overwhelmed.

Our reflections and learnings often lead me to a similar dilemma: how to hold, at once, the vast magnitude of the problem (what bell hooks calls “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”) alongside a belief that much of the most important work must take place on a small, intimate scale: settings like that church room.

(Yes, the change we need is systemic, but in order for folks–white folks, mainly–to work toward that change meaningfully, we’ve got a lot of internal work to do, too. I think.)

How, in other words, to know that no amount of resistance will ever feel like “enough,” while maintaining a commitment to resist as much as we can? Or: how to see that we are unlikely to witness the transformative, systemic change we believe necessary while continuing to take part in the work? 

Oh, right, and what is the work? Is it introducing my composition students to anti-racist concepts and texts that many of them won’t hear? Emailing my parents movie reviews that critique Hollywood’s romance with colonialism, then drinking bloody marys instead of attending an organizing meeting? Teaching poetry classes in prisons I’m not sure should exist, nodding while a guard tells me he respects the incarcerated men who he’ll deny water or bathroom privileges during class? Catching myself as I make racist assumptions about a young, Asian-American woman beside me in the sauna while I smugly read a chapter from The White Racial Frame? Talking about writing poems that address whiteness while finding every excuse to not actually write them?

*

Like most writers who teach (personal) essays, I often introduce my students to the roots of the word–from the French essayer: to tryAn essay, we’re told, is an attempt, an effort, a try at answering some question: what does it mean to feel joy? How to be a black man in America without getting swallowed by rage? What does it feel like to witness a bombing and manhunt on television while incarcerated? 

That they begin with questions doesn’t mean good essays arrive at clear answers; those aren’t really a thing in the world, and nor (us omniscient teachers say) should they be in print.

What we look for in essays, then, and what–I might assure myself–we look for in life, is the grasping: purposeful, thoughtful, reflective seeking.

This takes some pressure off: who needs to worry about clear answers (like what the hell “the work” means) when it’s the questions that matter?

The problem with this framework, as Leslie Jamison eloquently puts it in her introduction to this year’s Best American Essays, is that it lets us off the hook: “If anything counts as attempt,” she asks, “what could possibly count as failure?”

And of course, as she goes on to explain: “essays aren’t immune to failure. They can fail in a thousand ways–by failing to offer insight, by offering insights that feel too easy, too tidy, too shopworn. They can fail to enchant….They can fail to render their subjects with sufficient complexity. They can declare themselves done too soon.”

Similarly: if we know we won’t see something like “success” when it comes to the work of liberation and justice, then how will we know when we’ve failed?

In some ways, we won’t: it’s often (if not always) impossible to fully know the true, short or long term impacts of any kind of social justice work.

But it is certainly possible to fail by not doing what we can. Too easily, if I extend Jamison’s metaphor, I can applaud myself for asking hard questions while failing to take the pursuit–of insight, of knowledge, of the work itself–as far as I have capacity to do.

It is always easy, after all, to slip back into complacency: to shrug and shroud myself with the comfort that there isn’t any “right” way to resist or any measure of “enough” work. To slip back, in other words, into a notion of success (or of “content”) that isn’t mine.

Our culture–and most of our families–doesn’t teach us to prioritize working for radical change: most of us weren’t told to measure our success by how much we commit to uprooting toxic masculinity or abolishing the construct of whiteness. We were (mostly) taught, rather, to pursue our own passions, to create our own families, to seek fulfillment and comfort and happiness for ourselves.

That’s a teaching I’m trying to unlearn–but I’m not there yet.

Put another way: I still don’t know, for me, what it means to be “content”–so how can I claim something I don’t yet understand? 

*

At dinner with a pair of friends the other night, the term “woke” came up. I shared that I wasn’t sure it was okay (read: socially acceptable) to use the term as a white person, but struggled to put words around why.

Rob came to my aid: saying, in effect, that, as white folks, we’ll never really, fully, be “woke”; most of us have spent the bulk of our lives oblivious to the mere truth of our whiteness–the journey, as anti-racist folks often say, is lifelong, there will always be more learning, more unlearning to do.

Perhaps “half-woke,” he suggested, is a better term.

I thought of that the very next day–and how much it fits–when I found myself startled, naively surprised by some basic historical facts around American slavery presented in this podcast–one I’d just sent to some relatives, days earlier, because I thought it would be “accessible” for them (read: people I consider “less woke” then me).

*

There are multiple ways in which I could explain what prevented me from claiming the mantel of “content” that day: job insecurity (#adjunctlife), poetry rejections, relationship struggles (love is hard!), etc. And perhaps some combination of those was really what drove my response.

But maybe, too, it had to do with that idea of grasping: with the (relatively new) understanding of how half-conscious I am and always will be, with the awareness that I am trying to learn and internalize whole new understandings of what “success” and “work” and “content” really mean.

With the sense that, while I might be finding some insights along the way, I’ve got a very long way to go–and a destination that will always, in some ways, elude.

On Community, Colonization, and Shifting Connections

The elder poet swiveled her head around the room: an assembly of ten women, at various stages of our writing careers, gathered for a second annual weeklong poetry retreat on an enchanted island in northern Minnesota. 

That evening we were supposed to be reading one another’s tarot, but she and I had (somewhat quickly) arrived at the edges of our interest in said endeavor, so returned instead to the subject of writing: I sought her advice on how to put together my first poetry manuscript–or rather, for whom: should I be thinking of the potential judges whose reign over first-book prizes is my most likely path to publication? Or (that hypothetical handful of) readers who might, eventually, hopefully, one day enjoy it?

Her assessment was to favor the latter. “You really just have to be true to yourself,” she said. “I mean, odds are that none of us are going to make it to the pinnacle of success. This, though…” She turned towards the women, huddled in pairs on the floor of a dim-lit log-beam cabin with high ceilings and old books. This is what it’s really about.” 

This, as in, being together with one another. This, as in the singular kinship found among women writers. This, as in–for the week, at least–our community.

*

A couple months ago, I attended a racial justice conference on the theme, “Decolonizing our Minds.” It was magic. We spent the bulk of the day at round tables, sharing and listening.

First prompt: who are your people? 

The question has been reverberating since.

As I shared that day with my tablemates, I’ve always longed to have one intimate, cohesive, close community. Also, I’ve never had that.

“It kind of seems like you set it up that way,” my friend R once commented, on an evening walk around a Minneapolis lake. “Like you enjoy having a lot of different groups you shift between; like that’s what you want.”

In fact, as my tablemates and (and other conversation partners since) have affirmed, my experience is common, perhaps even typical: even for those who hang onto groups of friends from childhood or college, people tend to acquire additional groups through work or neighborhoods, hangouts or hobbies.

And of course, there are ways in which I do appreciate having different sets of people: my college crew, assorted groups of writer friends–people I teach in prison with, have one writing group with, another writing group with, teach college with, went through a mentor program or residency with, etc. etc. I wouldn’t want to part with any.

But I also find myself envious of those like my oldest brother, who has maintained the same friend group since growing up in Brooklyn in the 80s: now in their late 40s, they still gather for regular dinners and weekends and parties, share childcare. They have other friends, but there’s no question that the group is core to all their lives.

I find myself longing, in other words, for the firm, intimate connection of a single, secure, close-knit community–a single, secure source of belonging.

This longing–I was recently affirmed (as I often am) by a Tara Brach podcast–is extremely human.

“Humans are built to belong,” she says. While mindfulness and other self-help-ish dogma can counsel that the most important love is for and within ourselves, she reminds us that we’re programmed with the biological need to connect with others.

It makes sense, then, to desire that firm belonging in the form of a connection to a solid community.

It also makes sense that our cultural landscape, how we live now–often, apart from family, without the traditional rooting structures of village or faith–makes most of our connections increasingly diffuse. And that, as a result, we place more pressure on individual partnerships.

I’ve been thinking about this, lately, too.

When I answered the question, who are your people, I didn’t, at first, think of Rob. I named, vaguely, New York Jews and fellow writers and South Minneapolis neighborhood friends. But as I’ve reflected since, I’ve thought about how, more and more, my partner has become my people.

He is, after all, the person who drives me to the airport at 7 am. To whom I reach out when a class goes awry or meeting I’ve facilitated turns into painful satire. He’s who I think to share with when I encounter a noteworthy article, poem or person. He, without doubt, fills the most space in my life and thoughts.

This (mostly…no relationship is perfect) feels like a great gift.

Also: extremely terrifying.

I’ve made sure not to let go of friendships; it is among my greatest fears (others: dehydration, losing hunger) to get swallowed up by a relationship, and while this one has swallowed me perhaps more than others, I (think that least that I’ve) prevented it from swallowing me completely.

Still, Rob and I spend a lot of time with just each other. We enjoy that. We have our outside connections, and some that are shared. For the most part, though, our relationship exists on its own, without strong attachment to a group.

And while it must always feel scary to have so much of oneself invested in a single person, that fear grows especially acute when there isn’t the net of a strong community beneath us.

I’d guess we’re not alone in that predicament. And I’d guess I’m not alone in feeling that such pressure isn’t healthy–puts too much stress on a pair of busy, flawed, complex humans.

*

One of the who are your people conversations was among a group of educators; in response to one teacher sharing that they had worked at the same school for twenty-five years, I shared the frustration of my teaching work being–like my social network– spread out, in this case among different institutions.

“Oh that sounds fabulous!” the teacher exclaimed. “What an opportunity!”

In other words: while I might not have the security and rootedness that he has in a single place, I have the chance to learn with and from numerous different folks.

*

A big part of the discussion at that conference was around how the legacy of colonization represents its own obstacle to community: how it fractures us (via, among other things, racism) not only from one another, but from our own histories.

Our consumerist, capitalist, white supremacist dominant culture elevates the individual and the present over the collective and our future or past. (How differently would we behave, Rob and I recently pondered, if we felt more accountable to those who will come after us, or those who have come before? Answer: probably, quite.)

Why would we want to connect with the truth of our histories, after all, when those histories involve so much blood? And while we might strive for more than self-love, don’t we need an authentic connection with ourselves in order to make meaningful connections with others–how is that even possible when so many of us are so cut off from even our recent ancestral past?
I’m not sure what to do with these questions, or what it means for seeking meaning and community. (Baby attempt: “Maybe I should get in touch with my Jewish roots and become a rabbi! Wait, I haven’t even read the Bible..”)
What I do know: on the island retreat, colonization’s legacy felt especially vivid. I was there with a group that is almost entirely white; as was the man who owned it, whose foundation currently runs and operates programming there: it was gifted him by a company who had acquired it from someone who stole it from Native Americans. 

Being there, knowing that, didn’t feel right.

Of course, it isn’t right. For what it’s worth: the foundation that runs the island is making increasing efforts to empower Anishenabe people in their organization; my hope is that they will ultimately hand over full control.

But there I was; there we were. And like many white Americans, I am practiced at pushing aside the problematic sources of my privilege.

And it is with a good deal of shame and discomfort that I tell you I was able to set down those concerns for much of the week, and enjoy the island’s many gifts: the wild blueberries and clear lake and collection of books and nooks for reading them.

And, perhaps above all: the living in community. 

For those six days, we all had a simplified answer to that question: separated, both physically and digitally, from the rest of our lives–we were each other’s people.

Most of us hardly see one another during the year. But for this one week, we become family: cook and care for each other, make one another coffee, review one another’s work, play silly games and support one another when hard emotions or fears surface.

I do feel some sadness that we don’t see more of each other off the island. (We’re working on it.)

But it also occurs to me to use that teacher’s lens instead: to see our sometime community as something beautiful, as evidence of our natural human ability to forge–quickly and powerfully–intimate connection.
It occurs to me, in other words, to value the notion that, while those connections most valuable to us may not be consistent, they arise when and how they must. 
Like everything in life, connections are fluid, uncertain, often impermanent. What’s constant is our collective need.

This helps in terms of my partnership: I know that if and when I lose Rob I will feel a great absence in my life; I also know that I don’t (can’t!) know what web of connections will help fill that space, and that I can pretty comfortably trust that some will.

It also helps in thinking about my place in community: both real and imagined. How, just as my relationships with those around me may shift and change their place in my life and impact on my thinking, so may my connection to my ancestors and descendents–be they religious, literary or familial; I may not be quite ready for rabbinical school, but perhaps exploring different aspects of my heritage will lead to a kind of growth I can’t yet know.

I may never arrive at a concise answer to the question of who my people are. But maybe I can move toward seeing that less as a problem, and more as a gift.

On Selves and Space

So, we did it–therapy, that is. It wasn’t great.

We are, for now at least, okay. Probably–and mostly due to the (brusque, cold) personality of the therapist–we aren’t going back.

But the session did spark some good conversations, which have led to some efforts to adapt our relationship.

For one thing: trying to create a little distance. Aka: not see each other every day.

In our early (rather, earlier) stages, enabled by both our excess of unstructured time, living a half mile apart, and extreme infatuation, we slipped into a pattern in which we’d meet for dinner on Thursday, blink a few times, and then discover it was somehow Sunday and we’d seemingly done nothing besides stare at each other and fry up a couple of eggs.

“It’s kind of socially acceptable, right?” I remember asking Rob one afternoon in which I’d, again, made a last minute decision to blow off some professional or social obligation in favor of being with him. “You know, to be sort of recklessly irresponsible when you’re falling in love?”

“Of course,” he replied, looking down at me and some snow-dusted sidewalk edging Powderhorn Park. “Always.”

Except that, of course, it isn’t.

Not just acceptable, but desirable: in theory, at least, I am opposed to co-dependent relationships; I am in favor of maintaining independence and a full, dynamic life outside of a partnership, of spending solid chunks of time apart.

In practice, it turns out, I’m more complicated.

Among the traits that Rob and I share is a sort of unwillful transparency: it is very difficult to be around either of us and not know, immediately, what we’re thinking or feeling. As a result, when we’re together, I have the comfort of knowing where’s he’s at. Even when “where he’s at” is somewhat distant, I (because of who we are) can call him out on it, talk it through, get closer–and repeat. (The vice versa applies, too.) When we’re apart, I can’t. I don’t know what’s on his mind. And, due to an attachment style apparently developed as a toddler, this leads to speculation that can be, well, a bit irrational.

When I don’t hear from him for a few hours, for example, rather than picturing him absorbed in a book, sending emails or taking a walk, I am likely to leap directly to an image of him suddenly realizing me to be an anxious, unlovable narcissist with untamable hair, incurable insomnia and (eventually!) yellowing teeth.

Compounding the anxiety of such moments is the attendant shame: the feeling that I don’t want to be an insecure person–the kind of person who needs breathing techniques to survive three consecutive days apart. That’s not me! I want to tell myself. That can’t be the same woman, same self, who hasn’t just endured but thrived during long, intentional stretches of time alone, as someone who is (or, maybe, presents as?) confident, capable, strong! 

Except when it is.

*

I recently had the privilege of teaching a Personal Essay class at The Loft. Teaching this topic is among my favorite things to do in life, for a few reasons: for one, I spent three years studying them with a phenemonal professor; for another, the discussion of personal essays almost always boils down to a discussion of the search for some coherent sense of self–and what’s more compelling, and universal, than that?

Among the essays my class read was a favorite oldie of mine (introduced, of course, by that professor): Katha Pollitt’s Learning to Drive. It’s about the author, an accomplished feminist writer, recently spurned by a lover whom she “met in Marxist heaven,” taking driving lessons at middle age–the humiliation that occurs, in other words, when the vision of herself she’d like to have (a self-sufficient, independent, powerful woman!) is disrupted by divergent realities–not only does she need (significant) help in becoming a capable driver, she is also completely devastated by the breakup–and by her own complicity in the relationship’s painful end.

She is, in other words, human.

I thought of that essay in recent weeks. I thought of the ways in which how we’d like to see ourselves can collide with undesirable truths: how experiencing grief around a relationship’s end, or needing help learning a skill, or feeling some anxiety around a new relationship’s shifting shape, shouldn’t signal any sort of deficiency, shouldn’t represent a deviance from an identity as someone who is capable and strong–how these experiences are all part of the inconsistent, fluctuating, complex experience of being alive.

Put another way: our ideas about who we want or ought to be often come from a culture that elevates the secure, confident, independent person/woman in the same breaths as it diminishes us all for failing to meet standards that aren’t just unrealistic, but are often inhuman, that often don’t align with our messy, honest truth.

*

One day last week, after an early teaching morning, I came home and crossed a bunch of items from my to do list. Rob has recently started a new job, which means he’s not around during the day; it was nice out, and I had the thought that, if he were home, we might be walking his roommate’s dog through the park. I felt a tinge of sadness, but then, some satisfaction–a recognition that spending so much time with him had meant a neglect of my own stuff that didn’t feel great. And isn’t, ultimately, viable.

All to say: in the end, I don’t want a relationship that’s co-dependent. I’m too attached to too many things–friendships, communities, unfinished poem drafts–to let one person saturate my life completely.

But I’m also an unsteady, sometimes insecure person, for whom transitioning from a relationship’s intense, all-in beginning to something that can better accommodate normal, busy lives is not, and will not, feel easy.

What’s harder to remember: that doesn’t make me weak or lesser. It makes me who I am.

 

On Love and Work

“But don’t you think there’s a partner out there for you who might be more perfect?”

My brother was sitting across from my parents and me at an upper floor breakfast buffet in a Long Beach, California, hotel.

We’d been talking about a podcast, and–like most of my recent conversations–I’d managed to turn this one into a vehicle for gushing about my relationship. 

In this moment, I was gushing about how often we argue.

Rather: how good we are at communicating.

I had brought up the advice of Alain De Botton, recently interviewed on On Being about the New York Times article of his that, apparently, attracted more interest than anything else that happened in 2016. (Sit on that for a second.)

Specifically, his caution–one I find deeply compelling–that all relationships are very difficult. That people are difficult, in all our myriad, intricate ways, and that, therefore, any attempt at intimacy between them will require serious, delicate labor.

“Well,” my father had chimed, “of course that’s true in the long term. In the beginning, though, you should think the other person is perfect.”

At this, I bristled.

I’ve already said it publicly once, so, here goes again: I’m in love. I have found a partner who I deeply respect and admire. With whom I love to talk and listen and read and walk and be. Who inspires me with his compassion and commitment to working for racial and economic justice. Who makes me uncontrollably giggle and reads fucking poems. I have found someone, in other words, who I think is a really great fit for me–or at least, for the person I am now.

I have not found someone who I think is perfect.

And nor, as I told my brother and father and mother, do I think I ever will.

*

“Is he you?”

About six weeks after meeting Rob, I stood in the YMCA locker room on a Saturday morning across from a friend. As you might have guessed, things had already grown serious, and intense. Things, too, were/are not without conflict. While both he and I are skilled at talking through most things that arise, there is one particular issue–an ongoing friendship with his ex–where we struggle.

“We’ve actually talked about seeing a therapist,” I shared.

Thus, her remark: what other human would consider the idea of counseling less than two months into a relationship?

The one I’m dating, it turns out.

There are, in fact, many ways in which he and I overlap. (His mother, upon reading my blog: “She sounds like you, but in a female voice.”) Also: we both have small bladders, a tendency toward messiness and intellectual seeking, and a hyper attunement to the emotional energy of other humans; we can connect just as powerfully through physical intimacy as we can sitting on a couch, sharing passages from bell hooks or Grace Lee Boggs and reflecting on one another’s insights.

Before you throw up, let me assure you that there are, too, significant gaps: in our respective levels of interest in golf and backgammon, for example, or my desire to report on most waking moments of my day, even (on those rare occasions) when we’re apart, versus his inclination to keep some things to himself–along with other, related (and highly gendered) communication dynamics.

We talk about that–the gendered piece. And, when stuff comes up, when one of us feels slighted or aggrieved or even a little bit distant, we acknowledge and talk about it: the assorted levels of conditioning, from our families and cultural backgrounds, that, in many ways, still determine how and what we speak and behave. (Along with, ya know, lousy mornings, etc.)

As my brother was quick to point out, it can get a little exhausting.

But, for me at least, it’s also deeply rewarding. Recognizing and probing our moments of disconnection makes the moments of connection more powerful, and feel more full.

It can also make me walk around South Minneapolis, notice folks wearing wedding rings, and ask myself, Good god, how do people do this for years?

At this point (as the above might make you glean), I can imagine–or at least feel hopeful–that he and I could continue to make things work in the long term.

I also know enough to know that I don’t know anything–and that the way I (and he) feel right now may have little bearing on the way either of us feels in ten weeks or months or years.

But that, too, feels helpful: my most recent relationship felt burdened by my sense that it was somehow fated; sure, rationally, I knew there’s no such thing, but (for various reasons relating to the conditioning described above, plus the circumstances of that particular meeting and a set of shared physical features) emotionally, I let myself buy into the lie that we had to be together. And that belief, however small, fostered an anxiety that hurt much more than it helped–that coated me with a near-constant edginess, a low-lying panic: what if I fuck this up? 

I’m not immune to that now. I still have moments of terror about losing Rob. If and when it happens, I know it will suck. But I also feel somewhat lighter than I did then: right now, I think we’re great for each other, and push one another to be better people; I also know that could change. I think it does feel somewhat miraculous that we crossed paths when we did; I also don’t think there’s any providential guarantee that we should or will last.

A friend who’s been with her partner for many years recently shared an exchange they have when things between them grow hard: “Do you still want to make it work?” They ask one another. Both of them recognize that if the answer is yes, they can. And they do.

I’m not sure there’s any sounder theory of relationships than that: you both just have to want it badly enough to put up with the hardship–hardship that, no matter how long you’ve been together, will always arise.

 

On Processing, Grasping and Showing Up

Nine days had passed. 

When A first called, I was at a coffee shop with a writer friend–both of us attempting to work, both of us too consumed with post-election anxiety to summon much focus.

That morning’s news cycle had been dominated by reactions to Mike Pence’s appearance at Hamilton, and when A called my friend and I were commiserating our shared rage. I stood up to answer.

“I have to process my date last night,” she said, and I felt myself clench–how could I, how could anyone, spare a moment of attention toward our trivial, personal lives while our President-elect Tweeted as the fascist autocrat we feared him to be?

“I have to call you back,” I said.

I was at home on my futon a few hours later when I did.

“Tell me what happened,” I told her.

But I didn’t mean it. As she spoke, a layer of resistance assembled inside me–some rigid buffer.

“Did you see Trump’s tweets this morning?” I asked, increasingly agitated.

“No,” she said. And then, “You don’t really want to hear about this, do you.”

I sighed. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I just can’t right now.”

After we got off, I thought of my hyper-political grandmother, who (bless her) has long upheld a conversational fortress of Republican-bashing around my phone calls; I pictured myself driving in Minneapolis or walking in Brooklyn, rolling my eyes through her ten-minute prologue of Did you see Giuliani on Morning Joe this morning? Ugh, the schmuck! as I waited for her to ask about teaching or men.

The association made me cringe, but I tempered it with a measure of smug righteousness: Things were (are) different now. I’m not ready yet to act ‘normal.’

Whatever that means.

*

I felt like he was speaking directly to me.

The morning after I talked to A was Sunday, when I go with my friend R to the meditation center.

I had been struggling to sit still on my own, and the enforced pause from a vigorous saturation of election-related news–and its attendant anxiety–was a welcome relief. 

“It’s actually arrogant,” the teacher said, after we sat, to think that the fate of the country rests on you being in a constant state of worry.” He went on: in order to have the wisdom and strength to act meaningfully, you can’t deplete yourself with steady panic; you have, he said, to sometimes set it down.

I thought: shit. 

And then: of my conversation with A. How, while I’d rationalized my response to her, it had actually felt terrible; how I don’t want being a more engaged citizen to mean being a less engaged friend; how each of us must inhabit any number of shifting roles and identities in a given day, and how our success within any of them hinges on our capacity to be present and real and compassionate within each; how, in the most fundamental sense, what I wish for all of us is to be there for each other, in whatever way that means.

And then: and yet.

And yet I do fear (that vague, amorphous notion of) “normalizing.” I do fear that my numerous privileges (being white, straight, educated, not an immigrant, attached to a family and community with tools to support me if and when resources fail) may soon buffer me from a regime that has already put more vulnerable people in immediate danger. I know that over-stressing myself helps no one, and yet: how to ensure that releasing an unhelpful sort of worry doesn’t lead to indifference? 

*

The day after Thanksgiving I, like a good chunk of Minneapolis, visited the MIA. I’d heard about a timely new exhibit of photographs there, documenting protest movements.

Like many, these last weeks have had me grasping in various ways–some more skillful (dharma talks, calling Congress, strategizing and full-body-hug sessions with friends) than others (alcohol, sugar, Facebook)–to cope with the trauma of the election. The grasping, of course, is inherently problematic: because the things many of us actually want–a satisfying explanation of what happened, a concrete instruction manual to make things not be as they are--aren’t, actually, within grasp.

Still, while such efforts may compromise sanity, they’ve also turned up some worthwhile shards.

Before I found those photographs, I wandered into a different exhibit: one of exquisite black and white paintings by the contemporary Chinese artist, Liu Dan. 

I have approximately zero knowledge when it comes to visual art, and had taken only a little time to educate myself about the painter and his work. But standing before one of his large scale ink paintings, a re-imagination of an ancient Greek scene, I began to cry: the painting was beautiful, but what moved me wasn’t that–it was it’s vast, palpable ambition; how deeply the artist had tried to engage his country, his history, the medium, the world.

*

A few months ago, on a whim, I picked up an unconventional, hybrid sort of book with a radically long title by the late poet C.D. Wright. I got partway through its playful, provocative mediations, exploring forms and purposes of poetry, before getting distracted by other, less peculiar texts.

But in recent days, I’ve picked it back up. Among the questions I’ve been rattling around lately has been what it means to be a writer during difficult times–and that question threads through Wright’s words. One section describes the reaction of a Chinese poet to Tiananmen Square; he wasn’t present for the massacre, but he lost several poet friends, and for years he found himself unable to write at all.

“The old way of writing ‘would not fulfill’ his aim,” Wright explains.

Those words resonate: while in some ways the election did as much to expose existing troubles in our political and social systems as it did to generate them, from my point of view the prospect of our incoming President is deeply chilling–and represents a new era. Nothing feels the same about the world, and nothing feels the same about our roles within it.

I’ve long felt intimidated to make art that is overtly political–that is to say, I’ve been afraid to make art that would fail.

Wright didn’t share that fear; or if she did, she pushed past it.

Which might help to explain why these words, from another of her meditations, spoke to me as powerfully, lately, as anything has:

“Mostly,” she writes, “poets will fail. The structures will fail. Words will fumble and fall. But in so failing and fumbling poets refuse to be accomplices. We continue to articulate the possibility of solidarity.” 

*

What moved me so much about Liu Dan’s painting is the same thing that moves me in all the post-election conversations I’ve had with friends who are as shaken as I am, the same thing that moves me to keep grasping–hopefully more skillfully than not–toward how I might keep writing, keep participating, keep being a teacher and friend while still being on alert.

It’s, essentially, the same thing that the meditation teacher said at the opening of last week’s talk: that we never know, in the moment, if or that we’re showing up in the right ways.

It’s that we can’t fully know what the eventual impacts will be of our social or creative work–whether they’ll be positive or negative or, most likely, some combination of both.

It’s that the only thing we can know, now and maybe ever, is how beautiful–and how essential–it is to try.

 

 

On Beginning Again

“This is the most Elizabeth Tannen night of all time.”

Prone on her bed, A snatched the green shirt she’d been using to shield her eyes and flopped it back over her face.

It was 11:30 pm, Saturday.

Moments prior, I’d hurtled into her Brooklyn Heights studio from Atlantic Terminal–where a train had delivered me from two days at my brother’s house in Sag Harbor.

My flight to Minnesota was 7 am, Sunday.

I raised my forehead from the pillow beside hers and enumerated the moment’s conundrums:

“Let’s see. I kissed a stranger on the Long Island Railroad. I have no idea what I did with my Driver’s License. I’m supposed to fly home in less than eight hours. And I’m pining for a man in another state who’s probably, at this moment, unavailable.” I cleared my throat. “It’s true. I’ve never felt so myself!

The Comedy of (Elizabethan, sorry) Errors continued: after a few hours of (rather wretched) sleep, I got in an Uber to JFK—only to realize that I’d been dropped at the wrong Terminal; in hopes of being a (slightly) less distracted writer, but at the risk of becoming an (even) less resourceful human, I’ve removed Safari from my phone–which meant I had to stagger around Terminal Two in search of someone kind enough to navigate me toward Terminal Four. A twenty-minute Airtrain and a wait in what must have been the longest ticket line in the history of Sun Country Airlines later, I entered the (equally profound) security line; with less than 45 minutes to spare before my flight, I managed to talk my way through two unsmiling TSA agents with the (extremely fortunate) use of my (highly expired) New Mexico ID.

“I made it!” I texted A from the other side.

“Of course you did,” she wrote back. “Classic Elizabeth.”

Back in Minneapolis, things continued in familiar form.

Not to be dramatic (but to be dramatic), they did so in a less comic, more tragic manner: in the time-honored tradition of assorted predecessors, the dude, following our month-long pause, announced a newfound clarity that he needs to work through his intimacy-related issues on his own–and not with me.

*

“This is definitely a success.”

Days later, crumpled across from my therapist in a limp pile of sadness and rage, “successful” was not the concept with which I felt most, um, connected.

“But I’ve never been in a relationship,” I objected, “with someone with whom I’ve felt so compatible.”

“Exactly!” she said. “That means you’re making progress.”

This was only vaguely more comforting than the response of my dear friend K, who, upon arriving at my house in the breakup’s immediate aftermath, assured me that my time with him had been a rich learning experience:

“We know so much, now, about the kind of person you need!” she said, embracing me from across the living room piano bench.

“Like what,” I sniffled.

She tilted her chin toward the ceiling. “Well, like…someone who looks very Jewish!”

(For the record, my attraction to Jewish men isn’t new information. Nor is it one that, generally speaking, has served me well. Also, I live in a state that is 95% blond, meaning that this observation was neither hopeful nor of much use. I never said it was easy being my friend.)

*

“I don’t know what’s up with us man-boys.”

Before things ended officially, I had a brief exchange with the (ex)-dude’s and my mutual pal–one who once ended things with me on not completely dissimilar terms.

“Me neither,” I said.

And, truly, I don’t. I tend to stick to examining my own dysfunction in this space, and others; I can speculate, but ultimately, I can’t earnestly reveal much about what goes on in the hearts and minds of those 30-something men who can’t or won’t settle down.

I’ve got enough work to do, besides, with my own mess.

And when the universe puts you on a train beside a flirty male model on a night that you’re yearning for someone you sense has checked out while realizing you’ve left your ID (along with some negligable arm-strength-related pride and Ira Glass running on a treadmill) at the Crunch gym in Chelsea, you have to wonder.

Of course, the universe tends not to communicate very directly. And, as such, I have no idea what the hell it wants to say.

Allow me to grasp:

I’m still my spacey, messy, impossibly open-hearted and mildly peripatetic self: the self that is drawn to those my therapist likes to call “risky bets.”

I’m still prone, in other words, to make bad calls.

But I’m also, with each one, a little more aware, and–in their aftermath–a little less fragile.

On Sunday, I woke up feeling strong: I went for a run, did some writing, biked to the meditation center–where a guest teacher was leading practice.

She spoke about time with monks in New Zealand, the persistent difficulty of quieting her mind during a long stretch of being on retreat.

She spoke, also (as Buddhist teachers do) about the need to be kind with ourselves as we continue to struggle–as we continue, with ever-increasing clarity, to watch ourselves repeat those (extremely engrained) patterns we know cause harm.

It is our (slow, slow) work to grow more skillful.

But it s also our work to recognize and acknowledge our slips of progress–however small, however challenging, however faint.