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.

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Like a Shovel Hitting Stone

photo 1 (7)There are times when, by habit or determination, nose to the grindstone, shoulder to the wheel (pick your back-breaking metaphor!), we are plugging along in our lives, and then, with a sudden thwack, we hit upon a truth we wish we’d never seen. Or maybe (if we are being honest) we’d been trying to avoid all along.

The first time this happened to me I remember the exact feeling: Like I had put my shovel down in the dirt and hit a giant stone. Gardeners out there know this particular kind of bodily reverberation – you’re moving with the momentum of the swing and then, with a clang and a jarring stop, you can’t go further. The stone is there, perhaps movable, perhaps not, staring you back with its own simple truth: This won’t work for you.

What had actually happened was this: I had taken a job in a southern state and – it wasn’t working. My schedule had me on the clock sometimes 80 hours a week, my boss undermined our team’s efforts, I felt cut off from my creative self. And my body had begun to mutiny, leaving me weaker and more desperate by the day.

But it didn’t occur to me that it could be otherwise. The job was coveted and at a prestigious institution, and furthermore, I had committed. When I beat out all those other applicants I had said yes, I certainly did anticipate being there at least 3-5 years.

Until one day, when I realized I could leave. And the truth hit my body with that jarring clang. Oh no! I thought. I cannot do this. It can’t be true! I promised! I’m not a quitter!

But of course, what I had been quitting was myself. The sine qua non of my life. And there was that big rock in the garden, just not budging. A clear, solid stop.

photo 2 (7)Those rocks can be different sizes, of course. Sometimes, they can be unearthed to make space for us to go deeper. Sometimes, they are just the right size to make the struggle meaningful. But they don’t steer us wrong. And when we honor those stopping places, we include more of ourselves in our lives.

Not that this feels like a party.

This summer I’ve come across another frustrating stone. Many of my clients know that issues in my hands have led me to take a pause in my practice. I tried working through these for some time until I realized the folly in the incongruence – I can’t ask clients to take care of themselves if I’m clearly not! And I can’t insist that the body’s pace demands respect if I don’t stop to actually listen to what my body is saying.

I miss my wonderful clients, but know that this rest imbues my practice with new energy and direction, and allows me to go deeper, to consider what tools to bring forward and what kinds of work strengthen me (and, of course, you!).

I’m looking forward to returning, and in the meanwhile have been leaning into this bit of wisdom from Anne Lamott:

“Peace is joy at rest. Joy is peace on its feet.” 
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