Wednesday, June 05, 2019

The Power and Promise of Story

We know the power of story to motivate and connect people, to convince and add color. But I am increasingly aware of how storytelling has become co-opted over time, bent and twisted to be used as a power tactic or a marketing tool.

Story is a tool - it used to be a tool to educate; elders would tell fables and parables to illustrate concepts. It is used to entertain, to take us out of ourselves, and it is an incredible way to build empathy. Telling our stories helps us release them from our bodies and, in the right setting, reminds us that we aren't alone.

In the last several decades, story has also become a way to ask for validation, acceptance, consideration. And while that might not seem like a bad thing on its face, in the context of people without power telling their stories to people in power as a plea for empathy or understanding, it feels heavy in my gut. It feels more and more like justifying our existence, defending our choices, hoping to be considered equally human and deserving of care.

Many years ago, I began interviewing women about their stories. Specifically, their stories around being pregnant and having to choose whether or not to stay pregnant. I was increasingly frustrated that the political tug-of-war around abortion rights seemed never ending and I was certain that the conversation was all wrong. My hope was that centering the stories I wrote on the issue of choice would shift the spotlight a bit and add depth - open people's eyes to the notion that the issue wasn't two sides of the same coin, but far more complicated than that.

I had fully bought in to this new notion of what story was for. I was using these stories to not only educate people, but to convince them that these women deserved their consideration.

Sharing our stories is an enormous act of vulnerability. Opening ourselves up and shining a light on the parts of us that feel different, look different, are different is incredibly courageous, especially if the listener is not simply a vessel, but a judge. And while story is known for building empathy, it shouldn't be the key that opens the gate to empathy. If, in telling our stories, we are hoping to gain acceptance and validation of our worth, and the listener is the one who gets to grant that (or not), story has become twisted and co-opted.

The notion of needing to tell our stories so that people in power will acknowledge us and tap us on the shoulder with their scepters, allowing us entry in to the world of Worthy Humans is abhorrent to me. We need to start with the belief that we are all worthy and cherished. People with disabilities, people of color, transgender or non-binary people, women, elders, childless folks, immigrants - nobody should have to tell their story in order to be regarded as worthy of respect. Nobody should have to show their scars and bare their souls so that they can be deemed worthy of care and honor.

Our stories are reminders that we are not alone. They teach us about the depth and the breadth of human experience, but they should not be a pre-requisite for civil rights, for love, for worthiness. The power of our stories is that they help us connect to others, and to use them as currency for equality and humane treatment is wrong.

I admit that when I started my interview project, it was with the intent to use the stories as political capital. I hoped that they would be published in a book that would reach the ears of people in power, that the stories would shift something inside them fundamentally and convince them once and for all that reproductive rights are vital, foundational, human rights. The women who spoke with me trusted me and, in some cases, had never told their story to anyone else but me. I was powerfully moved and believed that it would make a difference. These days, I resent the fact that I should have to tell my story in order to gain agency over my own body, in order to maintain or regain my civil rights and be seen worthy of that by people in power.

I believe in the power of story. When someone trusts me with their truest, deepest truth, it is a gift I do not take lightly. As receivers of story, we have an opportunity to be deliberate and generous with our listening, to recognize that we are being given a gift. I have felt the significant difference between telling my story to someone who is willing to hear it, contain it, hold it and reflect back to me that I am not alone in my difference, in my pain, in my perspective and telling my story to someone in an effort to get them to recognize my humanity. The first instance feels healing and fuels connection - the second feels defensive and frantic and defiant. Sharing something profound in an effort to find community is expansive. Sharing something profound as a way to justify my existence or worth or right to have agency over my body is like always being a step behind, and it reinforces the power differential between me and the receiver.

I appreciate the people who gather the courage to speak for themselves and others - the ones who testify in public hearings in support of accommodations or policy shifts or funding sources. I simultaneously lament that movements like #shoutyourabortion  or #youknowme have to exist, that we have been forced to use our stories as justification for our choices, to plead for help from those in power. It isn't as though there is some tipping point, some critical number of stories that are told that will shift the narrative in favor of acceptance and compassion, in favor of the foundational belief that we are all human and, as such, equally deserving of the right to live freely, move through the world without obstacles in our way or a target on our back.

Until we can start at a baseline of humanity for all, equal rights, and acknowledgment of the historical systemic ways we oppress women and people of color and folks with disabilities and non-binary gender expression, etc. etc. we will not be able to truly hear the stories of our fellow humans. We will always be looking for the "hook," the seminal difference, the spark that makes us say, "Oh, ok, you're not like those other __________." But in my heart, that's not what story is about. Story is about bringing us together, reminding us of our connections, and reinforcing the power of being acknowledged.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Growth and Agitation

I am writing my way in to my body. This is difficult, but not counterintuitive. In the last ten years or so, I've discovered that what I used to think was counterintuitive was simply fear. Instead of doing what I was told to do (don't poke at that, don't examine the pain, pretend it isn't there or deny it or minimize it) for most of my life, I have learned that opening up, asking questions, and leading with curiosity is actually the most intuitive thing I can do.

So, while it has been a while since I sat down to write, I am agitated and hyped, uncomfortable and tense, and too far in my head. It is time to write my way in to my body.

The word agitated conjures up the washing machine of my youth - the golden colored 1970s top loading contraption that swirled clothes to clean them by violently twisting them back and forth. The one I had to stand on my tiptoes or levitate off the ground in order to reach that last sock or pair of underwear caught on one of the fins of the center agitator before tossing it all in to the dryer. Is this agitation getting things clean? Is it separating the dirt from the substance?

I am an extreme empath, especially when it comes to my daughters. When they are overwhelmed or upset, joyful or incredibly excited, I am too. I feel it in my core - like that washing machine agitator of old. I think sometimes I need that twisting motion, that constant shifting and moving inside me in order to parse out what is mine and what is theirs. Especially when the intensity is driven by fear.

It is my job as Mom and holder of space, purveyor of radical acceptance and unconditional love to operate from a place of calm and curiosity and centeredness. In order to do so, I have to filter out the fear.



It is Spring and I am eager to burst forth in to new growth and projects. Last fall I went to a plant sale and bought two tiny dogwoods and a lilac. They were in 1-gallon pots and at the time, they were simply sticks standing upright - not even impressive enough to be called a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. I was skeptical that they would grow at all, but even after the 15 inches of snow we got this winter (unheard of in Seattle), a week ago, they each sported one tiny leaf. Today, they are all decked out in green, leaves growing by the minute thanks to the rain and sun breaks we have had. I like to imagine that all winter they lay resting, knowing that the time would come for them to busily push forth new leaves, maybe even agitating deep inside as the Earth rotated and the days got longer, readying themselves for the burst of energy it takes to produce new growth.

I think I'm a few weeks behind, but I'm going to get there.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Grand Canyon is Not 100. And I Have Not Been Married for 25 Years



Today would have been my 25th wedding anniversary.

I'm trying to figure out how I feel about that. Honestly, it's not that I woke up with any particularly different feeling today. And I did my usual things - letting the dogs out, feeding the cat, making my coffee, checking in with Eve who is two hours ahead of me in the Midwest. It wasn't until I decided to double-check the date and match it with The Tarot Lady's daily card reading that I realized it was February 26.

And it wasn't until I stopped and did the math that I was certain it had been 25 years. But as soon as I confirmed it, I felt prickly warmth in my cheeks and a small lump forming in my throat.              
I focused on breath. Expanding my ribs outward and upward. Shifted my feet to balance the weight between both legs.

One of the headlines I read this morning in my news crawl said GRAND CANYON TURNS 100. That was another thing that gave me pause. Not because I was trying to figure out how I felt about it, but because it seems absurd.

The Grand Canyon is not 100.

The fact that human beings named it and stated that we were giving it some sort of special protection (from us, if we're being honest) is turning 100. The Grand Canyon has been there for a long time.

Human-centering.

I'm pretty sure that's a big part of the problem, isn't it? That we think everything is about us and we only see the world in terms of how it affects us, what it can provide for us, or how it can harm us.

In Dust Tracks on a Road, Zora Neale Hurston recounts a memory from her childhood where she climbs a tree in her yard and gazes out at the horizon.
"Every way I turned, it was there, and the same distance away. Our house then, was in the center of the world."

Today is a day. The moon is not in a particularly unique phase, there is no unusual meteorological activity happening in the part of the world where I stand, the calendar is a human construct, as are wedding anniversaries and the particular significance of one's 25th. It is not even my 25th, as I am no longer married.

Unpacking the flush in my cheeks and the tightness in my chest requires an examination of what I think I would have received were this truly my 25th wedding anniversary. Accolades from friends and family for having maintained a marriage for a quarter of a century. Some significant gift from my husband along with a nice dinner or small gathering of loved ones. Perhaps cards from our children. All of that may have led to some pride on my part - an acknowledgment of the work and effort it took to stay married for this long - and perhaps an extra burst of love and affection for my husband as I quickly flashed back through carefully curated memories of special times.

The Grand Canyon is not 100.
I have not been married for 25 years.

We have both existed before these milestones that would define part of us.
We will both continue to exist and evolve and have value regardless of any external measure of time.

There is something powerful in recognizing the set of relationships to which I exist today - not centering myself in them and imagining spokes radiating outward, but simply pointing to them. It is nearly impossible to talk about them without centering myself, without using the words "my" or "me." But if I can resist putting words to it, instead getting really immersed in how it feels to be part of this bigger community of people and animals and land and sky and water, I remember that I am held firmly and safely and that, here, time is not relevant.

Friday, January 18, 2019

For the Love of a Car

My dad loved cars. He loved old cars, classic cars, any car he ever owned. He loved washing and waxing them, tinkering in the engine, driving. Everything about them.

He taught me how to change the oil and air filters in my car. How to change a tire and check the air pressure and how to calculate my gas mileage. He was often disgusted at the state of the inside of my car, and he was positively purple the night I drove my car off a cliff in the pouring rain by accident.

I loved that car. It was a 1979 Datsun 210 hatchback and I could fit more people in there than you'd think. After I drove it off the cliff, he had it towed to town and ultimately to his place, 140 miles away, and even though it wasn't worth it, he found someone who could put it back together for me. I drove it for several more years and took really good care of it.

The car I had after the Datsun finally died was maybe the worst car I've ever had. Do yourself a favor and don't buy a car that was made the first year the car company ever existed. Give them time to work the kinks out. I was proud of it because it was the first car I bought all by myself, but it was a 1986 Hyundai Excel and it was a piece of junk. It only took a couple years before fifth gear didn't work. A month or two more and fourth gear died. I still drove it to and from work because my commute on I-405 was so slow that I didn't really need to get beyond third gear. But when the transmission dropped reverse, I started to worry. I got by for a while, parking on hills and only parallel parking in huge spots where I could go head-in.

The next car I had that I really, really loved was also the first truly brand new car I owned - my Ford Ranger King Cab. Fire engine red, four-wheel drive, five speed. My then-husband thought I was nuts. He grew up on a farm, driving combine and nothing but trucks, so when we moved to Seattle and he got a job at a tech firm, he couldn't wait to buy himself a little Honda Civic. He turned his back on trucks forever - distancing himself from his days as a farm boy.

I loved that truck. I sat up higher than most cars on the road and driving a manual transmission was always my preference. We could use it to haul the second-hand furniture we bought for the house, or dirt for the yard. Groceries sat in the king cab, safe from rainy days. I felt powerful in that truck. And I was sad when I had to say goodbye to it because I got pregnant and the king cab was no place for a baby's car seat. After Baby 1 and Baby 2 came a Volvo and a minivan. Sigh.

But when the minivan had outlived it's usefulness, I got Sparky. Sparky was a 2010 Toyota Highlander Hybrid and he was such a great car. Big enough to haul six kids, or five plus the dog, and not a gas guzzler at all. Sparky became known as the Party Bus when my girls were in middle school and I drove through Woodinville, Kirkland, Bellevue and Mercer Island, picking up girls along the way to take to school in Seattle. Sparky's glove compartment was always full of pretzels, granola bars, fruit and napkins for the long ride to and from school. I took a car load of girls to Astoria for the weekend on a field trip, sat in a ferry line for six and a half hours with my daughters and two pups, and listened to countless hours of kid music in that car.

When I bought my electric car last year, Sparky became the girls' car - solid, cheap to insure and drive, and a bit gutless. And last Friday, Sparky took one for the team, absorbing the impact of another car t-boning him, and protecting my girl and her boyfriend. Unfortunately, he didn't survive, and it's time to say goodbye.

As I cleaned him out today, grabbing a blanket and a pack of gum, a coffee mug and the registration papers, I saw the old metal First Aid kit beneath the driver's seat. Dad gave me that battered box, full of everything I might need should I get in to an accident - band-aids, gauze, alcohol wipes, scissors, flares, a space blanket, and more - when I got that Datsun 210 back in 1987. It has sat in every car I've ever owned and been used many times when kids cut or scratched themselves or simply needed something for their headache. I slid it out and settled it in to the rental car I'm driving for now and felt the tears come.

I am so grateful that Lola and her boyfriend are ok and that Sparky cushioned the blow. I am so sad to see him go and while it feels silly to cry over a car, it's also true that there are so many memories that are conjured up when I think about him. So much laughter, road trips, rides with stinky dogs. I guess maybe I inherited some of Dad's love of cars, even if I haven't changed my own oil in a couple decades.

Friday, December 28, 2018

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

I want to say it started the day E got home from college, but the truth is, it began somewhere back in October. I'm a stocking-stuffer fiend, to say the least. I start collecting things early - a small face mask someone said they loved, an ornament that will encapsulate the achievements of the last year, a pair of fuzzy socks just perfect for lounging. There are not many things that give me more of a jolt of joy than finding a tiny trinket that I can tuck away for Christmas for my girls.

Over the years, I've collected other kids, too. My daughters' friends who hang out at the kitchen counter and snack, do homework, play games - I listen to their stories and sometimes when I'm out wandering, I find something small that will give them a laugh or let them know I'm happy to have them in my life by extension.

Those kitchen-counter gatherings happened less this fall while E was far away at school, so when she came back in mid-December, the volume of extra teenagers in the house more than doubled. Having more mouths to feed, more laughter, and more noise in my house is bliss. I don't even have to adjust the amount of food I cook, because thanks to my great-grandmother, I am incapable of cooking for less than five or six people at a time, anyway. There are just fewer leftovers and more midnight raids on the fridge, more smiles and a few more dishes and a lot more glee in my life.

By the time the solstice rolled around, my heart was full. And even though the girls had gone with their dad for a few days, I had a lunch date with good friends and had prepared myself for the long, dark night and the letting go that comes with the winter solstice. I knew exactly what I wanted to release and I needed the dark and the quiet and the stillness to crystallize my thoughts and intentions. I lit candles, breathed deeply, formed pictures in my mind of just what it would mean to help myself be lighter. I imagined the weight and heft and color of the burden I've been carrying, nurturing, feeding, and by the time midnight rolled around, I had it cornered in my body and knew just how much space it inhabited. I blew out the candles and let go, seeing it disperse in to a million tiny fragments as though propelled with a giant wave rippling out, out, out. I'll never be free of it, but having the bits and pieces spread throughout my body lessens the weight and impact. Instead of feeling it tight and heavy in my chest, I can let each of the bits be part of something larger in their own way. I woke up feeling lighter, free.

Over the following days, I spent time with dear friends and family. I saw my mom, my best friend, my brother and sister, an old friend who has known me since seventh grade whose history is both intertwined with mine and divergent. I was blessed with open arms and love and amazingly easy travel conditions. There were hugs and sweet moments of recognition as precious gifts were exchanged. Tears of joy and connection as we looked at each other and knew; we are holding each other, we see each other, we honor each other.

The date, the day of the week - it never mattered. Was it Christmas Eve or Christmas Day? I still struggle to place myself in a calendar because there are still gifts to be opened in the living room, the fridge is full of delicious food, there are forthcoming plans with friends over the next few days. My house and heart will continue to be filled up with conversation and laughter.

Even as I prepared for the ritual of the solstice, I wasn't sure it would work. I didn't know if I could let go of something that I know will continue to trigger me for a long time to come. And in the days following, when I was, indeed, triggered, I braced myself even as I realized I was doing better. The blow didn't come as hard, sink as deep, or leave a bruise that my mind and heart worried over in the hours following. Letting go had worked. Somehow, I was able to use the darkness to align my heart and my head with my values and intentions and it feels as though the light hours - even though they are shorter - have more room for love and laughter. And I'm using every last second to soak up my girls and their friends and the moments with loved ones. It truly does feel like the most wonderful time of the year.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Where is God?

I spent the first eight years of my life as a Catholic. Went to church, learned the hymns and the responses and the stories. Longed to have my first real Communion, marveled at the beautiful robes and pomp and circumstance. Learned about God.

When my parents divorced, even though I didn't understand the circumstances of it at the time, I was told that we were no longer welcome in the church. My parents had been married in the Catholic church and a divorce was not allowed. I went through a period of being unmoored - for a variety of reasons related to my parents' split - and I remember wondering, Where is God?

This morning, as I drove Lola to class, I turned on NPR and heard a rabbi ask that same question. In the wake of the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue, so many are trying to fit the events in to some understanding of their framework of faith. So many times over the years, I've done the same. I would get angry with God and turn away, thinking that no real God could ignore me simply because my parents made mistakes. I fought against the notion of any omniscient being, took a comparative religion class in college and learned about the different ideas and iterations of this being throughout the ages, in different cultures. I have called myself an atheist, a "recovering Catholic," agnostic. All of those labels were in reaction to what I absorbed from my years in church and from my mom, who held on to her faith in God with a fierceness and tenacity I never understood.

When I finally stopped reacting and thinking about God intellectually, I was able to recognize what I know as spirit, connection. I don't feel a vertical connection with some other being that exists above all of us. I don't think I ever have. Intellectually, I believed in that for years - relied on it, even. But I don't recall ever feeling it within me. What I do feel is a horizontal connection, a link to each and every other sentient being that reminds me I am part of something bigger, that I am not alone, that I am held and I hold others. I don't have a name for it, and I don't frankly feel the need to.

I understand deeply the question, Where is God. The need to find some meaning or framework for processing the horrific acts we humans perpetrate is visceral and the idea that there is some being out there that can hold us in our grief and pain and provide answers is often central to our ability to move forward in the face of such trauma. For now, I believe that we are it, we are the ones, and it is that connection between us that allows us to continue on. When Jewish people are targeted, those of us who are not Jewish are called upon to hold those who are, we are called upon to acknowledge the pain, feel grief profoundly, and hold tight. We are necessary to lift those who cannot walk on their own right now and carry them with us as we do the work to rebuild, affirm love, create peace. When Muslims or Native Americans or black and brown people or people with disabilities are targeted, we are called to do the same work. My connection with you is not dependent on your religious beliefs or the color of your skin, the language you speak or where you were born or whether you can hear or see or walk. My connection with you is much deeper and is rooted in something that goes beyond physical form, and that connection goes both ways, if I let it. That means that when you are in pain, I can feel it if I choose to, and in doing so, I can help relieve some of your burden. It also means that when I act with love in my heart, it raises me and you, and reaffirms that tie. When I offer to speak on your behalf when you're in pain and you can't, that is "God". When you listen to me with love and care, that is "God". When we come together to spread peace and acknowledge the worth of every sentient being as equal, that is "God".

If the question, Where is God is in service to preventing future massacres like the one that happened in Pittsburgh or the killing of two black people in Kentucky, the only answer I have to offer is this connection, this affirmation of our link to each other. When we turn away and refuse to feel each others' suffering, we deny the existence of this thing that ties us to each other, and we also deny ourselves the support we gain from others around us. We are supposed to live in community with each other, we are supposed to rely on each other, we are supposed to offer each other our unique gifts when we can and draw on the gifts of others as well. Call it what you will, but I think this is what will save us.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

A Real Housewarming

One year ago today, I was surrounded by a group of amazing women who helped move Eve and Lola and I in to our new home. They packed boxes, cleaned cupboards, organized movers, found screwdrivers, and held me up during an incredibly difficult time. The transition from a life I loved and knew and assumed I'd always have to a mostly blank canvas felt simultaneously frightening and exciting, awfully sad and tinged with possibility. I was able to experience the full range of emotion precisely because of these women who showed up, who loved me and my daughters, and who helped me feel safe.

I am so incredibly grateful and so lucky to have such people in my life.

In my previous life, there had been lots of dinner parties and events - many occasions to host friends and family and fill the house with laughter and great food.

In the last year, I've hosted scores of the girls' friends for both impromptu study sessions/girls' nights and planned Halloween or New Year's gatherings, but I've not felt like I was quite ready to host something on my own for grown ups. Until now.

It wasn't supposed to be a housewarming party, but it turns out that this morning, my new home feels properly "warmed." Last night, I hosted a house concert as a fund raiser for Eat With Muslims, an organization started by two women in Seattle to try and build community and understanding of Muslim culture and individuals who are Muslim using food (brilliant!). Sheryl Wiser, a local singer-songwriter suggested that we do it as part of her Pies + Persistence project that raises money for nonprofits who are working for social justice and human rights in the face of this current Presidential administration's often horrific policies. She would play music, and Lola (who has been working furiously on her own original music for over a year) would open the performances with three of her songs.

We put out the word on social media and via email and the house filled up with amazing salads, deli trays, the most delicious Somalian chicken and rice dish I have had in my lifetime, and cranberry pie (tart). So many of us didn't know each other when the evening started, but the conversation never lagged and the plates were never empty. We sat and stood around the kitchen island laughing and telling each other about our lives and when it came time to sit for music, my heart was full. My house was full of people ranging in age from teens to 70+, enjoying each others' company with the dogs weaving their way around the room sniffing for scraps.

The music was beautiful and heartfelt and mesmerizing, and people stayed afterward to continue chatting and laughing. When I fell in to bed just before midnight, I was grinning from ear to ear. I can't think of a better way to flood our new home with love and positive energy than by gathering a group of people for food and music to support the hard work of women making a difference one dinner party at a time.

This life, it is a joyful one. There are good people in our midst doing amazing things. I can't wait to throw another party.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...