Wednesday, November 26, 2014

on black lives mattering

None of these words I’m about to write are the best words. If I wait until I can write those, I’m going to be waiting too long. There are better things to say, and people saying those better things better than I’m going to be saying anything today. But there’s no time to waste. There’s too much wrong. It’s time to move. 

I have two white sons, ages 8 and 5, that I love with everything I've got. Like a normal mother, I worry about my children, and some days that worry ramps up to straight fear. My kids have both been hospitalized for severe asthma—my littlest was nearly admitted to the ICU a couple of months ago—and watching them struggle for breath makes my heart do things I don’t like it to do. Those are my worst days as a parent, the days when my children are in jeopardy. 

I don’t have those days very often. Most days the standard-issue mother worry shows up as a sort of light vigilance. I know where they are, I have an ear out for them, I have a readiness to leap when necessary, but I can go about my business. 

When my kids are sick, too, they’re up against a neutral force; they’re up against their own malfunctioning bodies.  And there are benevolent forces in place to protect my kids. They have doctors, they have hospitals, they have medicine. When they’re struggling, kind faces greet them every step of the way, and we as worried parents are also met with kindness.

There are other things in the world I worry about, of course. There are threats to my children that threaten all children, and all humans: gun violence, climate change, etc. But those things are not targeting my children especially. 

The level of fear I have on my worst day as a parent of white children, that’s the daily dose for the parent of a black child. If you have a black son, you know he’s going to be considered a threat just by being alive. If you have a black daughter, you know she’s going to face the double dangers of racism and sexism. 

Like so many other people in the country/the world, I’ve been glued to the television and the internet since word came down that Darren Wilson wouldn’t be indicted for his killing of Michael Brown. I’ve been on Twitter listening to the anguish and outrage of the brilliant black women and men I follow there, I’ve been reading all the articles posted by my friends of all races. 

You know how you wake up some mornings with a pit in your stomach because you have something on your to-do list that’s overwhelming? You have some task that feels a little or a lot past your comfort zone, a little or a lot beyond your capabilities. And you can’t pass it off to someone else, you can’t delegate it. It has your name on it. You can’t sleep through it, either, or hit the snooze alarm. It’s on deck right now. 

I have that pit in my stomach, writ large. I’ve had it there for a while, and I’ve been putting off getting up and facing it properly. But what’s dragging me the hell out of my bed now, what I can’t wipe away and I won’t wipe away is the image of all the mothers, the mothers who have to tell their black children the truth, the truth that they’re not safe in this world, not how it is now. And worst of all, of course, but it can’t go without saying, is the image of the mothers who lost their babies to this kind of brutality. That’s the abyss. 

I read Keesha’s post this afternoon, addressing white moms like me. 

 This is what I need, dear friend. I need to know that you are not merely worried about this most tragic of worst case scenarios befalling my son; I need to know that you are out there changing the ethos that puts it in place. That you see this as something that unites us as mothers, friends and human beings. 

 I don’t know Keesha, but I hear her, and I care about her, and every woman out there like her. She’s in pain, she’s in The Pain, and she needs more than talk, more than our tears and our head-shaking and handwringing. I don’t want to paraphrase her words. I want you to read them yourself. (Go, read, click the link.) But she needs us to read up, and to speak up, and to take action. 

So it’s up now. It’s on us. If you’re white like I am, then no matter what your other challenges are, you are the lucky, inadvertent recipient of white privilege. If you bristle at the term “privilege”, then I want you to read Karla McLaren’s piece, How to Be a Privilege Traitor, which helps suck the shame out of the word and leaves it like it is, a plain fact, and furthermore, something to work with. We have to use our privilege to dismantle this fucked-up, unjust system, and we have to dismantle the racism that lives in us. Don’t get excited and think you don’t have any lurking in you, either. I know I have some lurking in me, and it’s not because I’m a shitty person. It’s because I’m a product of a racist society, and so are you. So we better get our eyes working properly and find that racism in us and admit it and root it out. 

I haven’t been speaking up on this like I should. For one, I’ve been afraid of conflict. I don’t dig it. I’m not a natural at it. But I’m going to have to get natural at it, and get good at taking deep breaths and summoning patience and getting in there and mixing it up. The other thing that stopped me from speaking up was the false idea that I needed to have something really good to say, something original, something newly helpful. But who is that for? That’s for me, that’s for my own ego. Who needs to play the freshest instrument in the orchestra? We need to help that sound get loud, and that’s all. I can beat a plain drum plainly, if that’s all I have. So if you’re holding back from speaking out on the subject of race and racism because you think you don't have something great to say, good news! We can say simple things with feeling, and we can amplify the voices of the people who’ve been on the front lines since forever. And then we can read and learn and listen and get out there and up our game. 

I don’t know how to do this, I don’t have a great game plan, and I don’t have great words. But other people have done a lot of thinking about this, and advice is out there. Like so, from Janee Woods:

Becoming a White Ally to Black People in the Aftermath of the Michael Brown Murder 

 Time to fly that plane, even if we’re not that confident in our flying abilities. We’re out of time. Somebody else is going to get killed. 

More later. In the meanwhile, #BlackLivesMatter. It needs saying until it sinks in. 

P.S. If you're white and you have criticism about how black people are responding to the latest news, I say this: keep your eyes on your own work. That's not your business. You have more than enough of your own work to keep you busy. And if you're having trouble comprehending black rage, The Case for Reparations, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, is required reading. (Oh, screw it, it's required reading for everyone.) If you're not feeling it after that, I don't know what to say except you're going to be a lot of work for the rest of us

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

sunday school

The first time I took communion, I was six years old. I was not a Catholic, or any other type of communion-taking Christian, it's important to note. This was my first time in a church. I was just a plus-one visiting the Lord's house for breakfast. 

I didn't grow up going to church. My parents and grandparents were Theosophists, and Theosophy isn’t exactly a religion. Some Wednesday evenings my mom and dad would go to Lodge, which was a Theosophical discussion group that batted around different topics week after week, but there was nothing on the books for kids. My spiritual education was whatever I picked up around the dining room table.  

My best friend, Allison Pykett, had invited me over for a sleepover at her house the night before, and we’d planned that I’d tag along to church in the morning to keep the party going. The Pyketts were Catholic, and their church was gorgeous and cavernous, with dark wood pews and elaborate stonework. The mass itself was confusing, and I was amazed by how smoothly Allison and her family knelt and rose and sang and sat and thumbed to this and that page in the hymnal. Trying to keep up with them felt like following along with some elaborate aerobic dance video while doing silent karaoke to a song I’d never heard before. 

And then it was time for communion. Allison had warned me that this was big shit, and we’d agreed that when the time came, I’d stay in my seat. I wasn’t a Catholic so I wasn’t supposed to have any. But when everybody got up and scooted over to get in line, Allison switched plans on me and told me to get up and follow her. 

I was seized by dread. What about the thing we’d talked about before? I was busting a taboo! I wasn’t supposed to be up there! What would happen when you did something wrong like that in a church?? I hadn’t been apprised of the consequences so I was picturing every kind of bad thing. But Allison pulled me into line and no adult stopped me, so I was swept trembling into the waiting-for-communion river. 

We inched closer. I prepared for the priest to yell or smack me in the face or toss me out a window. And then we were up. Allison went first. The priest smiled down at her, she opened her mouth and he put a wafer on her tongue. 

Then it was my turn. The priest smiled down at me with the same smile he smiled at Allison, the same smile he smiled at everybody in front of us. He didn’t ask me to show my papers or identify myself. I scanned his eyes, trying to read his mind. I determined that he must know that I was a visitor. How could he not know? He knew, and he knew some loopholes in the rules that Allison didn’t know about that made it so this wasn’t a big deal. That had to be the situation. He was ready with the wafer. Nobody was calling the cops. 

So I opened my mouth, and tried to speak to him with my eyes—I hope you know what you’re doing—and then his big clean fingers were in my mouth (it was weird to have a man’s fingers in my mouth and have that man not be my dentist) and the disc was on my tongue. It had happened. I hoped this didn’t mean I’d converted to Catholicism. I knew that was a discussion my parents would have wanted to get in on.

Then we shuffled over to the right, and someone gave me a little pleated paper cup. Since I was already possibly up shit creek having swallowed the wafer as a pagan, I figured that a blood-of-Christ chaser couldn’t do that much additional damage, so I drank the dark, sweet liquid and put the implicit lie behind me. And if I didn’t tell anybody I was probably Catholic now, then I wouldn’t have to go to confession to tell anybody about it, so that was also a good deal. 


After popping my strange-holy-temple cherry with Allison, the post-sleepover church visit always gave me a voyeuristic thrill, no matter whose house I’d slept at and whose religion I would be invading in the morning. I crashed all kinds of churches: Catholic, Mormon, Lutheran, Christian Scientist. Most of my friends were churchgoers, and their parents either didn’t mind dragging me along with them or they were flat-out worried for the state of my churchless soul. Either way, I was jazzed to be along for the ride. I felt like Jacques Cousteau, gliding into brand-new spiritual-tropical waters, observing all the brightly dressed fish going about their religious customs. 

I don’t know what I was imagining would happen in church, what exactly I was so excited about. I guess I wanted some God. If God was such a huge deal that everybody interrupted their Sundays at home to dress up and get in the car and drive to some special building not on a weekday, then there must have been some supersweet action going on in there, and I wanted to feel it. The friend I’d be accompanying was invariably blasé, being subjected to this ritual weekly, but my heart would beat a little faster as the parents drove up and parked and we filed into the church. A little fear in the foyer—will they stare?—and then I’d be safely in the pew with my temporary adopted family and a man would start to talk. 

I was always rooting for the priest or pastor or reverend or minister to say something exciting—Bring it, sir! Make the lights flash around my head! There are lights, right? Holy lights? Let’s get ‘em going!—and I waited for the moment where the man would spill the good stuff. 

Welcome child. Prepare to have your mind blown. This is why I have this job. I’m Doug Henning, I’m David Copperfield Times One Million. I have God up my sleeve right here and I’m going to let him out…..NOW!


My expectations were possibly jacked up a touch past the point of fairness. But if God wasn’t going to crash through the ceiling and embrace us all, I was at least hoping for something like a spreading warmth, some kind of deep, Christmas-y good cheer to bloom in my heart as God’s representative held forth. I held out hope every time, and was disappointed every time. If PowerPoint presentations had existed back then and I’d known about them, I’d have said that church services pretty much felt like that. 

But hold on! Sunday school was next! We could still squeeze something rewarding out of the venture! 

I loved Sunday school. Like I said, there was no place and time in Theosophy for children to talk about the divine, but I was still interested. Too bad for me, though; Theosophy was for grownups, unless you were my older brother, who could participate in Theosophical discussion as fully informed and articulate as any adult, and often more so. But the discussions I listened in on at home were all a little over my head and nobody was bringing anything down to where my head was, so I was benched by default. 

Sunday school, on the other hand, was 100% kid-sized, and I was champing at the bit for some discourse. The teacher would slip us a brightly-colored book or comic and we’d read the day’s selection and talk about what we read. The regulars mostly slumped in their seats and didn’t bother raising their hands, as I’m sure I would have done if I had to participate week after week. But this happened for me maybe four or five times a year, so I felt like I’d been handed some kind of hot classified CIA document, and attacked the material with insane verve. My hand shot up constantly. 

Maybe Jesus was like this! And maybe he meant this! And given the dilemma you’re laying out, I think I might have done this! And I think this means this! 

That I kept any friends was a little miracle in itself.


I was a little bit envious of these kids, my friends whose churches had super-popular Jesus for a mascot. He was everywhere. He was the People’s Choice, the ratings juggernaut. Theosophists didn’t have anybody like that. We had people like Helen Petrovna Blavatsky and C.W. Leadbeater and Colonel Henry Olcott and Annie Besant. Have you heard of them? Probably not! And we had some obscure, off-brand Jesus-like spiritual masters: Master Kuthumi, Master Morya. I bet you haven’t heard of those guys either! All the kids are drinking Coke and we’re not even drinking Pepsi or R.C. We’re drinking, like, hemp soda. It gave me agitas. 


One Sunday morning when I was ten or so, I was home and flipping through the religious programming on all the different channels. They were talking about Jesus on every one. I thought, well, this isn’t fair. If Jesus is who everybody says he is, he’d be up for being friends with anybody. Surely you don’t need to go to one of his churches to get in on this. And I decided to test it out and befriend him on the spot. I mentally placed Jesus in the room with me, and aimed my friendship pledge into the air where I put him. Nothing happened, I didn’t feel any kind of glowing hand on my head, but I did feel good and satisfied in the way anybody does when they’ve bypassed the middleman.    

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

please hold

This week's post is getting postponed until next week, as I'm doing some writing for some other places for dollars and there are deadlines. See you here next Wednesday!

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

anna stesia

A few years ago I had some surgery, and surgery, while it buys you pain, also buys you pain meds. There are probably some noble souls* among us who don’t exult when they find themselves in position to take heavy narcotics, but I’m not one of them. A nice little prescription for some Percocet or Vicodin is the dangling carrot on the other side of whatever crappy something-or-other I’m going to have to go through to get it. 

*or chronic pain sufferers—a tip of the hat and an apology for the above bit to you guys, all of whom I’m sure would love nothing better than to be able to get off the pain meds. I see you, I note you, and I’m wishing you freedom.

So I had this surgery, and afterwards I got to spend a few weeks in bed hopped up on Vicodin. Every time I laughed or sneezed or coughed it felt like I was getting barbecued from the inside out, but you know, I didn’t laugh or sneeze or cough that often. The rest of the time I was sailing in a warm haze, watching Netflix and eating the entertaining snacks my fine husband brought in to me. 

The only problem with the Vicodin was that it gave me horrible, vivid, rubbery dreams. I had to stop taking it every night by 8:30 or I was doomed to wander until dawn in the grossest parts of my subconscious. I asked my doctor if he could give me an alternative, and he wrote me a prescription for Tramadol.  

I took Tramadol for one day, beginning at 1pm. As soon as it kicked in, hoooly smoke. The high was the sweetest in history; I’ve never felt anything like it before or since. I felt like I was wrapped in furs riding through heaven on a parade float. A revelation. Tramadol. Jesus. I was the luckiest lady ever to get cut open. 

You were supposed to take a dose every four to six hours. My feeling was, hey, let’s make it four. The four end of this schedule is where the party’s at. Why let this feeling fade any more than it needs to? As soon as the minute hand ticked over to 5pm, I popped in Tramadol No. 2. 

I thought I was a genius until a couple of hours passed.

Here are some of the common side effects of Tramadol: 

(I’m not going to list them all because you have a life to live and there’s no time.)

feeling of warmth
feeling sad or empty
feeling unusually cold
trouble concentrating
unusual feeling of excitement

Here are some of the rarer ones: 

change in hearing
cold and flu-like symptoms
difficulty moving
disturbance in attention
false or unusual sense of well-being
feeling hot
feeling jittery
flushing or redness of the skin
headache, severe and throbbing
hot flashes
loss of voice
muscle aching or cramping
night sweats
tightness of the chest
trouble sleeping
trouble breathing
And then there are all the side effects that you have to call your doctor/head to the emergency room about immediately, but this isn’t a PSA and this post isn’t about prescription drugs even if it really seems like it is right now, so I’m not going to list them. 

Anyway, I had a lot of the side effects listed above, but I don’t see anywhere 








which I guess all fall under the “agitation” heading. I was sweating, freezing, nauseated, metallic-feeling and dead panicked, and I spent the whole night until the sun came up googling Tramadol horror stories (oh, you can find ‘em), pacing back and forth between the bathroom and the bed, and praying my fucking head off. 

Spoiler: I lived. 

My point is that there’s a downside to sweet, sweet numbing. And that’s what I’m wanting to talk about today. Numbing. The instinct to numb. I press that little metaphorical morphine drip button probably fifty times a day, in all my different ways, because I’m constantly deciding that whatever major or minute level of mental or physical or emotional suffering I’m undergoing is unacceptable and must be stopped in its tracks. 

Nurse! (Candy Crush.)
Nurse! (Web surf.)
NURSE! (Xanax.)


A glass of wine, that’s a nice one. Classy little magic carpet ride to an adjacent reality where it’s always evening and there’s always a fire in the fireplace and the day’s responsibilities are complete and there is no tomorrow coming to bring new ones. Also, wine feels rich, like money, like where there’s wine there can never be dirt or poverty or hardship. I’m in from the cold, insulated. Somewhere a few rooms away, barely audible, Robin Leach is narrating my own personal episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, or I’ve dropped into the Little House on the Prairie where Half-Pint stumbles onto a cache of fool’s gold and the lens goes all vaseline’d while she imagines her family drifting slo-mo through Walnut Grove wearing fancy, blinding white linen. 

I like wine. I don’t drink that enough. 

A beer during a Seahawks game! I’m a lightweight but I metabolize alcohol differently during a tense football game. It just disappears into my system leaving no tracks, it feels like. I’m too keyed up to notice any effects other than not dying from sports-related freakout. 

Pot, we’ve had some times. Eleven years ago, after I broke up with my previous boyfriend and before I met Dave, I bought myself an attractive little pipe and made the plan to take up pot smoking for real. I’d dabbled since I was a teenager, but I decided it was time to take it up as a proper identity. Rakish, unflappable stoner. (I was the very definition of flappable so this appealed.) But my stoner plan only lasted a couple of months because I met Dave and fell in love, and Dave was sober, and also I was in love so I had the best drug of all flowing through my system: oxytocin. (Roxy Music says love is the drug—and who wants to argue with Roxy Music?—but I’m not going to tackle love here. I’m not stupid.) So pot and I parted company until I was prescribed medical cannabis during a long illness a couple of years ago, and that was not the party I’m talking about.

There’s a Buddhist term, dukkha, that translates to something like “suffering”, or “unsatisfactoriness”, and it’s about that “if only” feeling that chases most of us around all day. Oh, the alarm, traffic, my foot, my wife, this job, my neck, the weather, death, pain. Get me out of here! Fix it. Change it. I don’t like it. It won’t do. The idea is that these things that we’re complaining about, they’re not the causes of our suffering. Our suffering about them is the cause of our suffering about them. Those things just are what they are. We supply the suffering ourselves by wishing them different. 

So this is the trigger to get our numb on, these endless flashes of dukkha. You pick your numbing agent of choice—anything from Hershey’s Kisses to Angry Birds to heroin—and you shut the dukkha out. 

All day I enact these micro defensive maneuvers, and I’m starting to wonder just how long I’m going to resist coming all the way alive like this. Because that’s what I’m doing. I’m resisting coming fully alive. I mean, I’m breathing and I have a pulse and I’m conscious for most of the day and I’m walking around, so that’s not nothing, but I’m afraid of something and I keep fighting it off, and I suspect that the thing I keep fighting off is my own life, my own life force, and that seems bad. 


There’s a personality type system called the Enneagram, and I’m really into it. (I’m a sucker for personality type systems of all stripes. They mesmerize me. Astrology, Myers-Briggs, Chinese Zodiac, whatever, I love it all. I’m always trying to figure out just who it is exactly that’s walking around in this Tina suit and I’m open to ideas. Wide. Wide open.) There are nine different personality types in the Enneagram. I’m a Nine, aka The Mediator, aka The Peacemaker, aka The Peace-Seeker, which is the most potentially numbed-out type. According to the Enneagram, Nines repress their anger and squash all their attendant unruly boat-rocking impulses. This makes them easy to get along with, but you don’t achieve that kind of repression without a lot of help, so we’re masters of numbness. The challenge for a Nine is to become unrepressed—wide awake and present no matter what—and in doing so release all that untapped dynamism. 

Not only are there nine types in the Enneagram, but there are three sub-types of each major type. You’re also classified according to what avenue the mechanism of the type expresses itself through most often. So each of the nine types have three expressions: social, sexual and self-preservation. 

When I first read about this, I was gunning to be either the social or sexual type of Nine, because those sounded cooler than being a self-preservation type. Obviously. But no. Sorry. No. The more I read, the more I recognized myself in the safety-seeking, comfort-loving Self-Preservation Nine. Goddamn it. So turtle-y. The numbest of the numb.  

I don’t love this about myself but I understand it. There was early trauma in my life that was ferocious enough that learning to numb was job one, and a compassionate act of self-preservation. It was a necessity, and the best thing I could come up with. It wasn’t wrong. 

It wasn’t wrong, but it’s not somewhere I'm planning on staying, either. This armor of numbness is outdated. It doesn’t serve any more. And so that’s my big focus these days, coming un-numb. Meditation, yoga, healing work, you name it. I’m pouring it on. 

So what am I afraid of? What am I trying to squash when I’m numbing myself? When I send my little fishing line down into this line of questioning, I get a flash of facing some beast, some kind of enemy, going into a bright hot battle with annihilation at its end. Something wants me dead. Something wants to burn me up. I don’t know what that is. I'm looking at this through a veil, you know? Numbness! 

But practically, in real-life terms, what’s the danger in coming alive? For all of us? Well, maybe there’s a lot of shit that’s not working, and when you de-numb and can see it and feel it, you have to fix it. Maybe your body’s broken, or your job sucks, or your relationship is wrong, or your friendships are unsatisfying, or your living situation is untenable. Maybe something is hurting you. I mean, yes. Something is hurting you. If you’re getting numb, something’s hurting you, even if it’s just your own thought patterns. Ugh. Exhausting! There’s so much to do every damn day already. You want to say there’s more? Extrication or rebuilding or re-conceiving or healing or moving or or or. Fuck. Fuck! Pass the wine. Tomorrow’s problem. 

And we’re not just afraid of the rough stuff, either. 


One of my favorite words is poignant. 

poi-gnant adjective \ˈpȯi-nyənt

1:  pungently pervasive <poignant perfume>

2: a (1) :  painfully affecting the feelings :  piercing  (2) :  deeply affecting :  touching

b :  designed to make an impression :  cutting  <poignant satire>

3  a :  pleasurably stimulating

    b :  being to the point

I love the word, I love the experience of poignance. But it’s unsustainable. That kind of sharpness is for a quick in-and-out, not for an extended stay. 

When I was very sick and in the hospital at the beginning of 2013, I didn’t see my children for nine days. I’d never gone so long without seeing them, but I was too unwell to handle it for that first hospital stretch. After nine days I was ready, and Dave brought them to see me. 

I heard them before I saw them. I heard their footsteps in the hallway, their little voices. My oldest boy was six, my youngest was three. The poignance began its assault as soon as I detected my boys with my ears. And then they rounded the corner into the room, into my line of vision, and I was fully harpooned. Their scruffy, hopeful, tentative faces (so exquisite!); their puffy overcoats, navy and gray; their little pants. Their milky skin, the look and feel of it. Their flutey little voices. The feel of them pressing up against my leg and my sides. If you don’t think I have tears streaming down my face right this second to think of it, think again. It burned, the beauty.  

You can’t live there, not at that pitch. 


And yet.


On my 19th birthday, I hung out with friends at an apartment up on Capitol Hill here in Seattle. We drank and played Scruples, peppering each other with provocative questions. The question came up, “Would you rather live a life of great joys and great sorrows, with extreme highs and lows, or would you rather have a more moderate existence, missing the extremes on either end?” I expected a landslide with me for the former. 

Nein. Two of us opted for the former, and the rest of the room chose the more moderate existence. Team Highs and Lows was all ARE YOU PEOPLE CRAZY? and Team Moderation was like NO, ARE YOU CRAZY? and we both had a point. But I’d vote the same way today. I’ve bumped both extremes plenty and I still say it. 

I have to practice sustaining that sharpness a little longer, is the thing. I think it can stretch out and diffuse into something livable without losing its potency. I think this is the idea. 

I was talking with my teacher, Jim, about the difference between aliveness and stimulation. (Or, no. He was talking and I was listening.) He was saying that we’ve gotten so numb as a society that our craving for stimulation is ramping up just so that we can feel something. Louder, faster, bigger, funnier, sexier, more violent everything. But stimulation, while it gives us a jolt, doesn’t address the thing that made us go numb in the first place.

You know it when it happens, though, the other thing, the expansion of the aliveness within. It’s not contentment, exactly, or well-being. Those are by-products, maybe, of aliveness, or presence. Sometimes everything aligns and you catch it, your aliveness, and it’s not because of the things that aligned. It’s not because of the sunset or the food or the fire or the mountains or the company, whatever was in place when the flash happened. It’s not because of the good news that somebody’s going to live, or that you got somebody back, or you got the job. Those are the curtains opening, not the show. The life that’s running around in you all the time, that’s the show. 

We just keep blocking most of it out.