Activism & intimacy

icy-pondOh, friends. Each day seems to bring a wave of destructive news and I am finding myself – and those around me – teetering between fight, flight and freeze, our personal and collective nervous systems spun right out. For those of us looking for a way forward, there are beautiful words to help us digest and gear up and go.

But then you find a lump in your body that shouldn’t be there and everything goes both quiet and loud. And you discover something about activism that you really needed to learn.

I had one of those doctors appointments no one wants to have. We find something, we don’t know what it is, we’re scared. My mind became a rolodex of maladies, history and genetics, previous medicines and pre-existing conditions collapsing into only terrible possibilities.

Outside the snow was falling thick and fast, washing everything to grey white. So many layers to remove for my arrival – winter boots and coat, hat, gloves, sweaters, long underwear. Waiting there in the room with the thin gown felt like an added injury; this isn’t the season for naked vulnerability.

Between my body and spinning mind, I was well worked up by the time the nurse walked in. “So,” she said, “You’re having some pain.” And then came a tumble from me: “Yes, it started last week, it hurts so much, I don’t know what’s going on, I’m kind of freaking out.”

And here she did something radical. She paused, put down her clipboard, and turned her full attention to me. “Why don’t you tell me,” she said, “what you’re afraid of. Maybe then I can help and reassure you.”

That was all I needed. Permission to be human, and to be seen. Her gaze didn’t break through my sobbing. And her kind listening got me to the truth of my own predicament, less terrifying when it was named: When you’ve been chronically ill, you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop, even when you’re better. joshua-tree

A few days later (and thanks to the ACA), all the tests are fine. My health fears have been allayed, but my global fears have not. Still I can’t stop thinking about that moment when a stranger paused to listen, and offered a kind of intimacy that was deeply humanizing.

So much political violence is predicated on our distance. It asks that we stay far away, put humans in categories, categories in boxes, fear those boxes, check them off, move on.

No.

When we are willing to get in close, we align ourselves with each other’s humanity. We say: we’re in this together, you and me. The truth is, we’re not actually separate. Buddhists could tell you this, but so can microbiologists. This is no Kumbaya metaphor, but a description of how we’re constituted.

Ed Yong’s fascinating book, I Contain Multitudes, lays this out beautifully; even the idea of the individual is untenable at the level of cell and microbe. We are interlocking, same but different ecosystems, vast venn diagrams of bacteria, overlapping. It isn’t just that we’re dirty – we’re dirt. Teeming multitudes. We need to rethink the whole paradigm.

This is intimacy writ small: We aren’t so different. And if I can extrapolate a bit here, there is radical activism in taking this truth into our interactions, in getting close with those we don’t know and acknowledging that their struggle is also ours. The nurse did that for me, and now I move into the world looking for how I’ll do that too.

Here’s my start: I’ll be offering Embodied Writing workshops at the Cancer Community Center, Bomb Diggity Arts and for immigrant and refugee organizations in and around Portland. I’ll be dedicating one day a month to donate all proceeds to social, immigrant and environmental justice organizations (write me if you’d like to recommend one).

But let’s back up a bit. Why don’t you tell me what you’re afraid of. And then let’s see what we can do together.

IMG_2189.JPG

 

Movements.

img_1831

“Activism is not a journey to the corner store; it is a plunge into the unknown. The future is always dark.”
— Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark.

This election, this time. So many of us are surfing between despair and determination, navigating how to help, grieve, get out of the way, get in the way.

The ground shifts and the old tools seem small. Where writing has helped me make sense of things in the past, “making sense” now feels like the wrong frame. Instead, I’m thinking about movements. The kind we make with our bodies, and the ways we move as a collective, mobilizing towards change.

At my wedding, nearly ten years back, I watched my cousin – 20 years old, visiting from Sweden, lanky, towering and fine-boned – step onto a dance floor for the first time. She looked around at all the others, twisting and turning to the music, and… started jumping. Feet together, arms at her side, sailing above the crowd, great unstoppable pogo stick bounds. She danced like this for hours. It was like nothing I’d ever seen, both discovery and arrival. Her face beamed.

My cousin did not wait for instructions, wade into Facebook arguments, wring her hands on the side. I’m in danger of stretching this parable too far, but she was teaching something big: When the music compels you, just go.

If we are committed to movement, we need to move. And rarely are new movements graceful. They are bumbling and unfamiliar and create something we haven’t seen before. We don’t need to wait until we figure it out before we act.

img_1833If we’re stepping into the terrain of social movements, our missteps can be particularly uncomfortable. We’ll screw up in small and large ways and if we’re lucky these mistakes will be brought to our attention. And hopefully, we’ll listen. We’ll listen like children do, not holding the cloak of our egos against us for protection, but letting it in. Trying again. We have to get out on the floor.

What that floor looks like depends on who we are. I’m deeply inspired by what I see around me: healer friends offering sessions by donation, business owners offering profits to the ACLU, people organizing in kitchens and city halls, teachers standing up for the safety of their students.

I don’t know that it’s going to be okay.  But a few questions are helping guide me anyhow:

  • Where do I spend (and not spend) my money to align with what I value?
  • How and where will I gather with other bodies to organize, plot, subvert, protect, create?
  • How can I leverage my privilege in places where it matters?
  • How do I self-correct, learn, go deeper, and account for my mistakes?
  • How will I listen?
  • How will I keep myself resourced and grounded so I can keep doing this work?

There is so much good material out there on what we can do. For a start, I’ll be donating a portion of my December earnings toward the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project and our local Planned Parenthood chapter. I’ll be walking, gathering, and listening, and then I’ll try something different.