Listening Practice: Vignettes in Entering the Mess

Everyone I know is asking some variety of the same question right now.

How do I contribute to healing, racial and otherwise, in a way that encompasses concrete action and personal examination? 

I talked about listening in my last post, as part of my personal examination, and so I wanted to share with you three moments from our city’s peace rally this weekend.  Despite my temptation to speed past what was being said when the ‘white fragility button’ was pushed, I found myself listening in a way I haven’t before.  I was listening with the curiosity I used to bring to my students, and I am humbled and further curious about what I heard.


He had kind eyes and a clever sign with the iconic Stay Puff Marshmallow Man as a Klansman instead.  This tall African American gentleman, clearly a practiced speaker, quickly put the crowd at ease with his warmth and humor.  In the short time each speaker was allotted, he started drawing a parallel between reading levels and people’s willingness to deal with racism.  In part I think he was trying to highlight the ridiculousness of people who still needed what he called “the Disney version” of our country’s history with racism–namely, slavery, Civil War, Martin Luther King Jr., the end.    While his point made sense, as a teacher I started thinking about it literally.

When I first started teaching, I encountered reluctant readers with the firm sword of ‘they should learn to read for the intrinsic value of it.’  I had always been a reader, delighted in words.  It didn’t make sense to me that others were not.  In fact, it seemed insulting to bribe them with extra credit, candy, and all manners of ingenious bribes that teachers come up with over the years.  I had to fall on that sword a lot of times (I mean a lot, a lot, a lot) and get my metaphorical guts everywhere, before I was willing to concede that some kids just weren’t there yet.  They needed a ‘carrot.’

So what if that’s true of understanding and dismantling racism?  Yes, we should stop being racist assholes because it is the right thing to do.  I also know it is inherently and deeply unfair to ask or expect people who have dealt with it THEIR WHOLE LIVES to care about those who are truly backward in their thinking.  And I am not suggesting that a Nazi, or someone else who wants you dead, deserves that.  But there are others, like myself, who are genuinely motivated to move with heart and take responsibility, but we’re struggling with the ‘how,’ feeling it out as we go, hoping it will be enough.  So could we have racism flashcards, like we do phonics flashcards for new readers?  What would breaking down this complex reading look like?

And, what was my own ‘racism reading level?’  I put myself at about sixth grade, for those who are interested.  Like most sixth grade readers, I can understand a plot, a few nuances, but if there’s not enough action, too many big words, too much description of the setting, or if I have to read aloud to my peers, I start getting sweaty and losing attention as I scan for the nearest exit.  I want to read the hard books on this subject, but like a brand new English speaker I had once who carried around Harry Potter for the better part of a year and finally brought it back to me unread with tears in her eyes, they make me despair sometimes that I won’t ever get it.

Thank you, fellow tall friend, for giving me a metaphor I could wrap my brain around.

Southern Swag

This lady scared me.  She was beautiful, both steel and roots in one body, but she scared me like the black mothers of some of my students used to.  I knew I better be on point and not waste her time with trifles.  I could hide behind the label of teacher, or in this case rally attendee, but she wasn’t having it.  She started speaking about multiple encounters she’d had with police brutality, and how even today some had warned her to not “say too much” before coming up to address this largely white, affluent audience.  I had to grab Wonder Woman’s lasso to get my attention back, it was running out on her words so quickly.  But then she came to a point that stunned me into complete attention–black people have always known what it is to be other, but now, under this administration, unless you are a white, male billionaire, everyone will soon know how this feels.  “And what are you going to do then?”

Weirdly, I found myself excited by this point after the shock of it stopped me short.  I started thinking that maybe this was EXACTLY WHAT WE NEEDED.  Forced disenfranchisement.  It is hard, and maybe impossible, to teach empathy as an intellectual exercise.  What if we finally fucking felt it?  What if we looked around to men and women of color and went, “Oh, you weren’t just being melodramatic”?

The American government does not love us.  Institutions can not love us, because institutions are not people.  They are meant, at their best, to be a representation of people’s hopes and values.  They are concrete buildings, built on abstractions.  Unfortunately, when we confuse institutions with people, we have a harder time trying to change them.  I can’t be the only one on planet Earth that has struggled to correct this thinking, and there is still an inexplicable part of me that wants the institution to love me (probably because the rules for loving and relating to people seem much more vague and messy).  When I left both organized religion and public education, I was an exemplary participant and cheerleader. Understanding that the institution did not love me was heartbreaking each time.  However, doing so allowed me to realize how little I had settled for, the other possibilities that were present, and sadly, the opportunities I had lost to really be with the people inside these institutions.

The current administration is allowing sickness to surface on every level.  Could the silver lining be that it reminds us of how much we need each other, of how similar we are, of how we are in charge of shaping institutions, not the other way around?

Thank you, brave warrior, for believing in our collective destiny enough to tell us the truth.

Matter-of-Fact Boy

Upon leaving the rally, I walked past a mother and her two young sons.  I overheard the following snippet of their conversation:

Son: “I’m glad they are saying all these things.”

Mother: “How come?”

Son: “Because maybe the bad people will hear them and change their minds about hating.”

And I saw the mother’s face.  Overwhelmed with the myriad of conflicting emotions a moment of hope like that brings, she did what we’ve all done as adults.  She gave the, “Awww, that’s sweet,” face.  I’ve seen that face given to me, to artists, to children, to anyone really who holds a pure and simple emotion or belief fiercely.  In response, he gave the face I’ve seen on children time and again, the face I myself have given in response to the distance created by condescension:  “What?  I’m not kidding, I’m not trying to be cute, or quirky, or entertaining.”  What he said to his mother was true and completely possible in his eyes.  There was zero conflict between his heart and the state of his words/actions.

After all these years, I can only believe that adults are jealous of this integrity, this harmony.  And maybe it’s not the “real world” that kids or other dreamers live in, but if it is not “real”, why do we go to such great lengths to destroy it?  Why do we make children learn the word ‘pretend’ in order to meet us where we’re at?  Shouldn’t we protect any vessels that can shelter and grow hope this pure?  Shouldn’t we chase this degree of alignment, integrity?  I know that every time I unearth more of it for myself, I have more love for the people around me.  We already save seeds against future disasters, so this is not a new concept.

Thank you, little seed, for hoping.  I can’t honestly hope like you do yet, but I am working on it.

What could you hear today, if you were listening, that would help heal the world?



When Things Need Replacing

I could only bring myself to watch one clip of events unfolding in Charlottesville.

In it, a torch carrying mob chanted, “You will not replace us.”  In a split second I was keeled over in gut shaking sobs on my couch, cradling my laptop as if it were a baby.  Though I revile their message, I found myself connecting to the feeling underneath that chant–the feeling of pouring yourself into something, right or wrong, so vigilantly that you develop tunnel vision.  If and when your hacked off awareness then starts to creep back, push in on you, the feeling of having worked for a lie is terrifying.  Change brings anger.  Your self-worth crumbles.  The rules seem to be new, just as you finished mastering the old rules.

I felt these same things while leaving the church fifteen years ago, and public education one year ago.  I never picked up a physical torch, but I burned lots of things to the ground in both those seasons.  I never pointed an actual car at a crowd, but there were lots of bystander casualties as I came to terms with my illusions.

I wasn’t crying for the Nazis, but because I did not understand how we as a nation could possibly combat this cellular fear of otherness that is now oozing from our historical pores.  Dealing with children who still inhabit children’s bodies is one thing, but what if the child is in an adult’s body?  How do you begin to enter a space where tantrum and logic are both present?  I felt hopeless, like I wanted to run away.

But tonight, somewhat calmer after a neighborhood peace vigil, I can listen enough to hear my heart.  Although I want there to be a “right” course of action, I know that’s not possible.  The only “wrong” course of action is inaction, allying with hate through inactivity and numbing distraction.

So, what else can I do?  What else am I asking of myself in response to this newest display of fear?  Listening is the first word that comes to mind.  Seeking out stories that are different than mine, and doing what it takes to strengthen the skill of listening without judgement or concurrent narrative.  Facing institutional and interpersonal racism is some people’s everyday lives.  I believe this with my brain because I’ve both seen and heard it, but my heart has not yet absorbed it enough to be fully transformed, to consistently act in line with my values instead of my privilege.  Even tonight, as a young trans woman spoke at the vigil, I found myself wishing she would tone down her anger a little.  My very next thought was really more of a sigh, a deep one, on realizing how much better I need to be at listening.

Owning my own racist/privileged attitudes, in explicit terms, is the next request I feel myself making.  What is my part in Charlottesville?  Well, first off, I am frustrated at the never-ending nature of social justice struggle.  I want there to be one big action, or a series of smaller actions, that will count as “enough” on the cosmic scales.  I want that action to have concrete and somewhat immediate results, and I want it to be hard enough to do that it feels “worthwhile.”  In short, I want to tap in and tap out again with something I can put on my Facebook.  By doing so, I contribute to how long these struggles take.  This option is less available for folks who are fighting for their own lives.

There were also lots of times as a teacher that my racism was quite clear to me, but more recently, I’ve become aware of it in my internet dating practices.  My first instinct is to swipe left or delete men of color, often times before I have even read what they have written.  When I do read, and often find myself intrigued, I find myself saying things like, ‘it would probably be easier for him to date someone who is Black.  How could I ever understand what life is like for him in a way that would be enough?’  Translation: I am not willing (yet) to put myself into the vulnerable territory of doing that work, even though it is the exact same work I ask people to do in getting to know me.  I tell myself I don’t want to add to someone’s pain by misunderstanding them, but I am not entirely sure that is honest.  I often add insult to injury by conflating these men with the absentee Hispanic and African American fathers of my students all these years, and the judgement I hung over those men was immense.   Again, it comes down to my ease.  It is easier to know people as categories than as individuals.

I assure you, there’s more.  The countless moments that I am probably not even aware of as they are happening.  I hope to shift that, rooting these weeds out with kindness where I can, with a little ass kicking where I can’t.  I also don’t expect a gold star for these revelations, but I am starting to see that if I don’t name them plainly, then there’s little hope of real change; a heart that more closely matches my outward actions, so that the actions don’t become just a politically correct bandaid.  I don’t want to march, donate, email, call, and still allow myself my comfortably dirty corners.

I don’t know how else we start truly belonging to each other, seeing each other as parts of ourselves, when some are born with such privilege or such struggle, but I know we have a lot of things that need replacing before we get there.

What the Water Wants

This summer has been weird.

On the one hand, there’s been traveling, dinners out, dancing, a new friend, swimming, sleeping in, jumping out of trees, poking into new career possibilities, committing to an examination of my fears, and a cute boy to spin me around the dance floor and call me beautiful all night.

On the other hand, people are cancelling jobs left and right, I’m borrowing money, an abnormal pap smear sent me in for biopsies, my Dad called me aloof again, a very large check got lost in the mail, aforementioned cute boy turns out to not be a great communicator, and still, no life plan that makes sense to anyone.

I’m not used to so much good and so much challenge all colliding at once.  I’d arranged my teacher life to where it was either mostly stress or mostly relaxation–aka, the school year and vacations.  I’ve started to feel like someone carrying a large bucket of water, full to the brim, trying to keep it from sloshing out.

This was very much the metaphor in my head as I started warming up for dance class on Monday.  Stretching, breathing, paying attention as usual, and then bam!  An utterly disruptive question.  You know the ones I am talking about, right?  The questions that are not necessarily logical.  The questions that will lead to more questions.  The questions that are turning points.  It was all this, and yet elegantly simple: what does the water want?

I’d like to say my response was spiritual and enlightened, but it was more along the lines of, “WTF!!  I am too busy trying to hold all this to consider what ‘this’ needs.  Can my stupid brain unhook from my magical intuition for just a few minutes, IS THAT TOO MUCH TO ASK?!?!?!”  But, after having what amounted to a dance tantrum, I calmed down enough to be able to consider it as more play than work.

I tried to move like water as I dropped into the rolling beats of the warm up set.  I felt my own sweat, the heat of the day still trapped in the walls and floor, and puddles of light from the overhead bulbs.  I experimented with sloshing up against the side of an invisible bucket.  I flexed and bent to feel the liquid in my wrists, elbows, knees.  The dance, as it tends to do, reached up and took me.

I was water.  And then, I had my answer.  A perfectly non-answer, answer.

The water wants to be water.

I was tempted to tantrum again.  In my very own version of Family Feud, the left brain says, “This is not an answer to which you can create action steps.  This is not an answer that you can explain to others.  THIS IS NOT AN ANSWER.”  On the other side of the board, right brain says, “But it is.  And you feel what it means even if you can’t say it in a million words.”

A request for more patience.

Hold the shifting conditions lightly little H2O molecule, everything is temporary.

Feel the fun of making a mess.

Look at who and what is around you, one of many.

You are soft.

You give life.

So much combining.

The water wants to be water.  And so, year two of Delaney Walkabout begins.