#31DaysofBlackMinimalism: Week 1

or, you're hiding all kinds of shit in there, Jess.

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I open my closet and there, among the heeled boots and the bridesmaids dresses and the holey jeans and the yards and yards and yards of scarves, waits my mother. She is suspended about a foot off the floor, hanging against the shoe rack I have on the back of the closet door. Her brown eyes are bright and mirthful. “Shelly,” she says, “you can’t get rid of your heels, girl! What will you wear to dress up?” I sigh and turn my back to her. 

She’s shoved in between my wedding gown and a stack of maxi dresses, one hand gripping the white wire rack where my clothes are hanging. She holds up an emerald green satin gown. “Listen, I know you haven’t worn this gown since Julie’s wedding, but it’s beautiful! Look at the bias cut, and the back line is so sexy. You might wear this again!” 

“Mother, leave me alone,” I say and yank boxes of sweaters off a shelf.  

“Jessica, you can’t get rid of sweaters, you live in Chicago.”  Her voice is muffled: I pull two three four sweaters out of the box, and her head and shoulders are at the bottom of the box. She wants to reach an arm out to me but the box is too small, and she is wiggling. "Now, you know how cold it gets here, it's irresponsible of you to get rid of so many clothes! What are you thinking? What about folks who don't have sweaters? How is this going to help them, huh?"

I dump the sweaters back on top of her face and shove the box back on the shelf. 

*

At the end of Week One of documenting what feels like a slow build toward a change in lifestyle, I realize that I've never thought of cultivating the space around me in terms of what I value, what I want, how do I want to feel in that space. Historically, I've kept and selected things based on what looks good, what will make my home look the way I want it to look, what would be wise to keep, and I haven't thought at all about whether or not an aesthetic, an object, a practice (of space, of living in space) reflects my values. It feels kinda... revolutionary.

Going through every object I own, I'm learning that not only am I reevaluating the things that I own, but the way I own them, the way I buy things, and the way I was taught to buy, to live. The idea of my home space and ownership of objects, as not just a metaphor but an example of how my values, my ideals, and my desires are realized: it's revealing a lot and it's changing a lot.

Anybody who has survived his childhood had enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.
— Flannery O'Connor

There is a lot of anger in the reflections of my childhood. My mother's anger, a robust, embodied rage that came out of all sides of her, at anyone near enough to really know her--generally just my father and me--white hot, sharp as a katana sword, that would fillet you fast and leave you breathless; my father's anger, seldom displayed, heavy, a kind of threat on the wind used to strike fear into my heart, hard and solid like a mace, not as deft as my mother's anger (due to my father's complex emotional landscape, still a mystery to me), but still damaging nonetheless; and my own anger: blunt, unskilled, leaking out of me at odd, askance angles due to the nature of being a child at battle with two adults, and therefore never really allowed to say the things or strike the blows that equate with an adequate defense.

There was a log of anger, and a lot of fear. I was raised in a family of privilege: I am from an affluent, educated, solidly middle-class (or at least, it seemed so to me, which I recognize is a privilege in an of itself), Midwestern black American family. There was no Jack & Jill membership, no cleaning lady or accountant or gardener, no no cotillion or coming-out ball, but "ain't" and “fitten’ to” and “nigga” we’re as banished in the house I was raised in as cut-off shorts. 

Like so many middle class black American families, my family had indicators to prove we were well-off. A house, unattached to others around it, with a garage attached, not in the back or in some alley; a lush green yard that needed raking or cutting in order to stay presentable; a living room and a family room each with its own set of furniture, for company and for casual relaxation respectively; not one, but two sets of encyclopedia (that were almost never used, by design); an upright piano, used painted pea-soup green with cracked keys, but in-tune enough for lessons that ended when I started high school; even a separate freezer for storing half-gallons of vanilla ice cream or orange sherbet, or plastic containers full of greens and hamhocks, or chitlins, made by my grandmother and brought home every Christmas.

The fear you couldn't see. Fear of being recognized, found out, discovered for what my parents really were: the son and daughter of poor black people who had fled the South, in one case, only one generation before. Being poor and black cast in America casts a long shadow. To my mom and dad the poverty clung like a film that could never quite be washed off, like a sour smell the source of which they could never quite find and destroy: but if they were neat and clean and presentable, perhaps it would go unnoticed, perhaps they could pass as decent, hardworking, respectable people, and this perception would perhaps free them from the terrifying, sometimes joyous, always harder-than-it-should-be struggle of trying to stay black and alive and provide for their kid.

Their anger and their fear had consequence, to be certain. I am still discovering, and still healing. And if you read this, and think that I am ashamed of them, or that I seek to shame them, then you aren't paying attention.

*

My parents dealt with this fear of this specter of black poverty a number of different ways. They educated themselves, and they worked. My mother is ambitious--another reality I acknowledge without shame, is the beauty and power of ambitious women--and so she got as many degrees and took as many jobs as her energy and health would allow her.  My father is diligent, and so he bent his knees, dropped his shoulder, and went to work. So far as I know he's worked for the same company for almost my entire life.

A dogged, tireless, bitterly cheerful work ethic is something they have in common. Where they differ is in the handling of the dough.

My father saves. He sees clouds gathering on the horizon, sometimes real, sometimes imaginary, and he saves. He hoards. He stockpiles, and wears things until they are threadbare and holey, and he never needs new things, by which I mean he often needs new things, but considers that even though his clothes don't fit or are showing wear, they are "perfectly good." When we would shop together and I would proffer an object--toy, book, article of clothing--I wanted to buy, he would ask, "do you need it?" which I took to communicate, Jessica, will this item help to feed/clothe/educate/shelter you in a way that has been heretofore absent? The answer was always no, even when sometimes the answer was yes, and I would put it back, my chest thick with longing.

Not so with my mother. My mother does not save, she spends. A bad day for either of us would find us at the Dairy Queen or McDonald's or later, at the mall. I loved buying clothes with her because the decision to purchase wasn't based on whether or not I needed something, but on whether or not it was cute, or how it made me feel, or how good I looked in it. Choosing things that were pretty pretty, that meant pretty, that "made me/us feel pretty" was a space of bonding. Each of us felt vulnerable int he context of adorning our bodies for different reasons, my own considerably less enigmatic and unique than I thought. Shopping took that vulnerability and transformed it, empowered us both with beauty that lasted just long enough for the tags to come off and the return window to close.

*

I don't know if other people feel the values and ideals of their parents and upbringing as strongly embedded in their bodies and surroundings as I do. I often feel I am alone in this feeling: everyone else has already exorcised the clinging possessive succubi of their upbringing, the rest of us are entirely conscious of our wounds and how they reenact in our present lives, and I'm the only one with work to do. But this need to reevaluate, which leads to shedding obsolete behaviors and ideas, happens over and over and over again. First is was in my religious beliefs and practices, then in my job and career path, then in my choice of partner and nature of relationship, and now, far from my parents but still hearing them closely in their sown seeds, I find myself choosing differently how to build a home, how to spend and save money, how to keep and release objects. It's both exhilarating and exhausting. I feel as though the excavation of my self will never end, and indeed, it won't. I'll just keep uncovering samskara after samskara, reflecting on pattern after pattern, and asking over and over, why are you doing this, how is it serving you?

I'm buckled in. I'm ready. I can breathe deeply enough to tolerate anything.

31 Days of Black Minimalism

My friend Ari is so much smarter than me. 

I've been asking myself lately why I shop so frequently--by no means a problem, I'm not carrying mounds of debt, but we are living paycheck to paycheck, and I routinely buy more than I need--and I've come up with, I want to feel pretty. Shopping makes me feel pretty, in a way that dressing or adorning does not. Note: it's not actually the act of wearing the dress/scarf/lipstick/shoes/sweater/ring/eyeliner I've purchased, nor is it even putting it on (and heaven forbid it be taking it off and just existing in the body I was born into, naked, proud, beautiful, though maybe some days a bit chilly); it is the act of purchasing the item that actually makes me feel pretty. It's the promise of beauty, delight, magic, that is made when I hold the object in my (sometimes digital, sometimes flesh-and-bone) hand and give over some semblance of legal tender, and then it's mine. And the half-life of how pretty I might be in/with the object has instantly passed, because time is like this.

I tell her this, and I don't assume anything is off about this. I don't assume that I'm pretty with or without the dress/scarf/shoes etc., or that I'm being manipulated, or anything other than pretty really is out there and not in here, and that I don't see my own Pretty independent of the object. And Ari nods at me, and she says,

"Capitalism wants us to feel so bad about ourselves."

And my mind is blown for the rest of the day.

*

Growing up, my mother told me I was lazy. And messy.

Among other things I am releasing, I am practicing letting go of the lies that I believed about myself that I learned from my mother. Well-meaning, logical, evocative, but dishonest nonetheless. 

I weary easily. I have values that are different from the values my mother holds. And I believe my whole life, I have had more than I needed. I have had too much, and no place to put it all.

*

I'm not sure where it started, but I find myself in the grip of a major episode of purging. Of letting go. The word episode feels wrong, because it connotes a temporary quality of the experience I'm having or the story I'm telling. This doesn't feel temporary. This doesn't feel like a phase or an episode; this feels like a pivot. My Mister says the kids are using the phrase "Inflection point", borrowed from mathematics and applied to all kinds of things, to describe a sharp turn in a different direction. It feels like that. 

Maybe it started in India. Maybe it started with veganism, in my silver Hyundai on I-65, or later in my small apartment in Dearborn Park. Maybe it started when I read Marie Kondo, which was two years after everyone else read her. Maybe it started with the Sri Sukta. I don't know, and there will be time to consider all this and more. But for now, let me say this:

whenever I travel, I return home and feel tight and uncomfortable about how much I feel I have changed, relative the inflexibility of my space, my world. It is one of the most difficult sensations for me to navigate. I struggle with it. I came home from the Indian subcontinent this spring, and felt the change in seasons (coming closer, despite the Chicago weather telling me otherwise), and the inflexibility of my home, and the need for detoxification, and for purge, release. And then, as I started to consider What It Really Is to live an intentional life, a life where how I invest my time, money, energy, skill set, is something I actually think about, I started looking around and noticed that the corner of conversation around... sigh, pardon me, minimalism*, is largely occupied by white cis men. 

Listen, I have no problem with white cis men. Some of my best friends are white cis men. I also find that right now, I'm less interested in their narrative of history, of past or future, than perhaps I ever have been.

The narrative of minimalism, so far as I've read it, (which is not much, I claim no scholarly knowledge of this subject/movement/insert noun here) seems dominated by dudes from the dominant culture who made buckets of money by their 30th birthday, and then realized happiness wasn't to be found at the bottom of another bottle/gaming system/line of blow/anonymous hookup/joy ride/done deal/expensive suit. This is not my narrative. I don't know shit about that story. And I knew that I was in this story somewhere.

So I kept digging, and I found some minimalists of color. Folks who are exploring what it is to make intentional choices about spending, consuming, choosing, and releasing, with a knowledge of the history of oppression in America, equity and income disparity, in short who talk about minimalism with an understanding of privilege, personal and systemic. 

And I decided that because the corner is small, I want to be a part of the conversation.

So:

#31DaysofBlackMinimalism

I'm not about absenting or excluding, myself or others. I'm not about judging the choices of others. But I am about interrogating this urge within myself deeply, and exploring what it is to live with less, and what it brings up for me, and what it has to teach me. 

  • Starting today, I'll post a photo on my Instagram account daily, sharing a little image around what's on my mind.
  • Starting today, I'll post once a week (?!) here and write a little more deeply about some of what's coming up.

I'm excited to see where this is going. This isn't a blog about minimalism. This is a blog about where yoga intersects race, culture, and identity, and how I engage with that. I'm hopeful that I'll keep digging into that over the next four weeks. 

Join me. 

I recently took a tea and meditation workshop, and now the practice of brewing tea is blowing my mind.

I recently took a tea and meditation workshop, and now the practice of brewing tea is blowing my mind.

* I’m not in love with this word. It feels like such a label, and I can’t use it freely yet. Maybe part of this time will be me reclaiming it.  

Public Service Announcement

Sawai Madhopur, Ranthambore National Park, Rajasthan

Sawai Madhopur, Ranthambore National Park, Rajasthan

This PSA is brought to you by every teacher who wants to help every student grow. 

Dear Yogi,

INJURY IS NOT A CAUSE FOR SHAME.

Your body is temporary. So is mine. So is hers, and theirs, and his. Your capacity to read in low light, to eat cheeseburgers and still slide into superskinny matchsticks, to work like a machine for 14 hours on only four hours' sleep, to stand on your head, to but both feet behind your head, to put both feet on the floor, To Inhale: your physical capacity for all things will one day fall away. The state of being able-bodied is a transient state. Do not hide your injury from yourself. Do not hide your injury from your friends, your family, your community, and do not hide your injury from your yoga teacher.

Your yoga teacher wants to help you. They want to keep you free from pain and to use movement and breath and awareness to help bring ease and clarity and discovery into the system that you move across the surface of our shared planet. Hiding this from your teacher doesn't protect you. It might make you feel less vulnerable, but in fact it actually makes you more vulnerable, as your teacher lacks information that you possess, namely that your body doesn't like to go that way, or that you're carrying an injury that may not go away in the next 90 minutes, or that ow! it hurts when you do that. Offering a cursory comment like, "I have a neck thing, but it's no biggie," or, "yeah, some back pain, but I can work around it," or, "There's some knee pain but I can modify," tells your yoga teacher nothing about what's happening. It tells your teacher that there's some injury or discomfort somewhere within you, but that you are enigmatically (though likely not deliberately) going to hide it from them, so they either guess, or run the risk of aggravating it. 

You don't have to bring MRI results, or a complete medical history, or a note from your MD. YOU DON'T HAVE TO PRACTICE THROUGH PAIN. Any teacher who says otherwise* is not worth the investment of your time and money. In fact, you don't even have to take this advice; you can continue on the path of enigmatic communication, and hope that the space between you and your teachers will be informed by their nonverbal communication skills and deep listening. We get better at this, we really do, if we're trying. But when we ask about injury, we want to empower you to banish the spectre of shame around your injury. Working with injury is so valuable. It teaches us, you, any practitioner who is willing, So. Many. Lessons about listening and working with attention, about the edge of a posture or sensation, about the breath as a tool, about being present. 

This practice we step into, yoga, is about making the unconscious conscious, about meeting yourself where you are, and acknowledging that without judgment, with attention, and exploring how that changes with time, dedication, and ardent, earnest devotion and attention to the practice. Injury is a reality of having a body. There is NO SHAME in it. Please, speak freely about whatever is coming into the room with you: lower back pain, pinched nerve, torn meniscus, PTSD, substance abuse and recovery, eating disorder, menopause, anxiety, pregnancy, WHATEVER**. Trust us. Let us work with you. Bodies do not always feel like a safe or easy place to live in, we know as well as you do. When you let us in by telling us about your injury, we're able to provide an experience that helps, hopefully. It might allow you to move out of a space of pain, of gripping, of fear, and into a space of cooperative, compassionate relationship to and with your body. Vulnerability is hard, we know. But it's part of what it means to exist here, and we believe in you. We believe in your ability to be vulnerable by being honest, and we believe in our ability to hold space for you and help you stay safe in your vulnerability in our room. 

Love, your yoga teacher

 

*please note, yogi, there's a difference between intensity and pain. Sometimes the things we ask you to do aren't easy. That's deliberate. Building strength requires meeting resistance, and working with it intelligently. Knowing the breath will help you tell the difference.

 

**just a quick word to say I know that menopause and pregnancy ARE NOT DISORDERS OF ANY KIND. I'm not an insurance company, or a white male American senator. Still, I want to point out that these experiences have consequence in the body, and it's important to tell your teacher about them. They affect your practice. That's okay. Let it be okay.

India: Part One

I’ve gone and come back again. In many ways. And I’m trying to figure out how to write about it. But as soon as I sit down with the goal of putting words down, they fly out the nearest window. So while I try and coax them back, here are some images, which might communicate more anyway.  

 

Shifting Shapes

I don’t have the artist information for this sculpture, but i can tell you I saw it at this year’s SOFA Chicago, and they’re represented by Nils Gallery in Paris. They were at stall 301. 

I don’t have the artist information for this sculpture, but i can tell you I saw it at this year’s SOFA Chicago, and they’re represented by Nils Gallery in Paris. They were at stall 301. 

I have flat feet. Like, flat feet. I make rectangles in the sand when I walk, not those cute little seven-shaped footprints. My balance in standing postures is shit. For years, people have offered me advice about what to “do” about my flat feet: I should be wearing shoes with high arches, or shoes with no arches, or no shoes at all; I should engage mulabhanda all the time because my flat feet are due to a collapse that runs from my pelvic floor down my inner thighs, collapses in my ankles and sinks my big toes forward and my arches down; I should stand on this hard rubber ball two minutes a day, per foot. I should tuck my toes under in this pose, press my heels down in that pose. If only I can engage enough and were stronger, lighter, tighter, if only I had enough will, I could change.

This is not a post about asana.

*

Man, sometimes this shit is hard to write about.

*

As a young woman, I lamented to my mother that I never heard from guys simple sentences, like, hey, I like you. I think you’re smart and funny and cute. Can we go out? “Why won’t a guy just talk to me like a person, why all the game playing and engineering?” I would whine to her. My mother explained that it just doesn’t work that way with men. There’s a dance, a whole litany of unwritten rules that I’m responsible for knowing, and agreeing to play, and not knowing them can result in results for me, often treacherous or capricious because they were being dolled out by beings with fragile egos who don't take rejection well.

For her part, my mother was always trying to dress me better: shorter skirts, tighter jeans, even some lipstick, something to indicate to prospective boyfriends that I had a shape, a body, and was interested in sharing it with them. She was always saying what a “hot little body” I had, and that I should show it off, at school, at work (without sacrificing my professionalism), at church (though be careful here because doing so could cause a man to sin), even going to the grocery school or getting on a plane.

My mother taught me this. A bright woman, seemingly self-possessed of her own power, confidence, and dynamism. And even in her, this rhetoric of dressing for other people is so strong she passed it down to future generations.

Because we teach boys that girls wear red lipstick and tight tops and short skirts because they want you, regardless of how they actually treat you, and we don’t teach them to say, hey, I like you, can we go out, or wow, you say such smart things, I like listening to you talk, and also, I like watching your mouth say such brilliant things, would it be okay if I kissed you. Instead, we teach boys that when a girl dresses a particular way it means you can touch her however you want, her consent be damned.

*

I lost my virginity not so much as an act of consent, as an act of resignation. There was no emphatic Yes, but instead I just wearied of saying No. Which just goes to show you: if at first, she won’t put out, try, try again.

*

Transformation is a big part of the yoga zeitgeist marketing. 30-day posture challenges, give us THREE WEEKS and watch your ab flab become a ROCK HARD SIX-PACK, your body can be this body. We want to change ourselves, we want to change each other. What’s not a big part of the transformation marketing is how hard change management really is. Some of us are familiar with samskaras, the ditches of habit that live inside us. (No judgement here: the habit of drinking water or choosing a salad over fresh fries or sitting with your mind for 20 minutes a day is a habit just like the pint of ice cream after a tough day or smoking a bowl the moment our coats and shoes are off. The habit of self-reflection borne out of anger is just as real as the habit of defensiveness borne out of anger.) These patterns are deep, carved by repetitive action, by powerful emotions, by family and cultural practices (curses?) arguably by past lives. They don’t just go away after a month of our red x's on the calendar and Instagrammed practice pics.

I’m trying to figure out how we change. How do we define positive change? How do we define rest that is legitimately restorative from rest that indicates collapse, weakness, overextension? How do we clarify the difference between a change that feels exhilarating, empowering, like the freedom of flying, from a change that creates instability, displacement, a quality of feeling deranged? How do we define and identify negative change?

Seems to me the first key here is the pronoun.

We.

The power of community is significant. Some portion of assessing what is transformation that is useful and distinguishing it from transformation that is damaging is the community we collect around us. Sometimes we trust the person or people we have around us—a lover, a trusted friend, a family member—to speak into our lives with compassion and discernment and help us assess if a change we’re making or have made is positive or destructive; sometimes we don’t even know that we need these people to speak into our lives, and they do, and we’re grateful for what they see and how it can help us. Sometimes these dear people see and speak into our lives, and the truth they witness is too hard for us to hold, and we deny it, or lash out at them, or get defensive by attacking their weaknesses instead. 

That feels like a bit of a big deal, right? You gotta know that your community can hold you in love and in truth, because if they’re all caught up in their own bullshit, they’re gonna treat your vulnerability and mistakes like fodder for judgment and abuse, and kick the shit out of you.  Communal accountability isn’t for most of us: Americans love our individualism. We pride ourselves on that hardworking, bootstrap-pulling, sacrifice making, I’ve-worked-hard-to-get-where-I-am-and-now-I-have-come-up-so-don’t-touch-the-shoes-you-might-smudge-them narrative. The idea that anyone can look into our lives and say, hey, this choice you’re making might not be right for you, or right for me or others in our community… that’s a charged and difficult space.

Add the power dynamics of things like race, age, gender and privilege into this community and well, it’s poised to go right to hell, without enough integrity to keep it clean.

*

Men around us are failing. They are falling. I feel like I can’t turn around in a circle without seeing another group of folks step into the light about they way they were harmed, assaulted, attacked, or violated by another man. Specifically speaking, I love men: I love my man, I love the men I consider friends, I love the men I am related to, and be sure ALL of them, at some point, have been condescending, patronizing, or even misogynistic. But at this point, I’m not sure I can say about these men, he would never do that to me.

I hate feeling that way. I hate it.

My teacher would say, it’s never outside of yourself, so I have some work to do on my own fear, and freeing from it.

And, it’s a hard time to be a woman right now. Which is to say, it’s always been a hard time to be a woman. Because chastity belts and illegal abortions and the institution of marriage and polygyny* didn’t make this shit any easier.

I talk freely about white supremacy and how embedded it is in our culture (arguably as Americans, but I would say as a planet. I would say that the pervasive, viral, toxic effect of white supremacy that began centuries ago went global a long time ago).

(Listen, I gotta say this: because I talk about white supremacy a lot, it’s important to note that #metoo feels like a surge of shakti borne of the white feminist movement. Black women, women of color, we’ve had #metoo stories for decades. Fuck, our #metoo stories built America. And don't be a trans* woman of color; their #metoo stories are same shit, different day. Don’t misunderstand me: white sisters, share your stories, let the truth be revealed. But make fucking space for the rest of your sisters of color who have been saying “Me, too,” forever, and particularly about white men, while y'all cloak yourselves in your whiteness and abandon us. Don’t keep throwing us under the bus. Ahem, Lena Dunham. (no link here. If you want to know, find it when I'm done.))

Anyway, white supremacy. We carry it, all of us. White supremacy teaches us that there is such a thing as a “model minority”, that respectability politics will save our lives when we get pulled over, that white is a not just a metaphor for pure, clean, righteous and correct. But I am frankly, freaked out by the fruit of toxic masculinity that is ripening right now.

Angry. Fucking exhausted. Freaked out. And also unsurprised. 

Because toxic masculinity, like white supremacy, is a shape-shifter. Sure, the white nationalists are feeling bold given the shitshow at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave (and Congress!), but this shit winds itself in our communities, our systems, our work in the most insidious ways. Though its results and effects are clear and stark, it’s skulking and slithering, and it leaves so much shame in its wake on its victims.

*

I was maybe 30 years old. He was… older, a white man my senior by ten years or so. We were colleagues in an interdepartmental training at the art school where I taught creative writing and he taught arts management**. The training was about how we connect our disciplines—art, film, fiction writing, journalism, fashion—to the realities of identity politics: how do we teach tomorrow’s creative moguls to be more culturally literate, to broaden their scope of humanity, to care about how people of color, women, trans people, religious minorities, people on the margins, are portrayed and advanced—or not—in their art forms. It felt like God’s work we were doing. We wanted to help students be better artists, because we know that powerful art touches hearts, and touched hearts change lives, and changed lives change the world.

(I want to point out here, in pursuit of honesty and self-study, that some part of me still feels embarrassed and she is the part that wants to tell you that at this point in my life I was wearing my hair in long locks. It often got me a lot of attention. As if that will explain somehow what happened next. As if patriarchy and white supremacy and toxic masculinity aren’t enough of an explanation all on their own. #internalizedmisogynoir.)

We were in a circle in a common room. Lake Michigan sprawling, cool, distant, beckoned out the window. We were sharing our minds and our hearts, struggling, disagreeing, listening, working. We were in the middle of some kind of kinetic, thought-heavy, idea-driven, language-based musical chairs think-game. I don’t remember what it was. I don’t remember how to play. I only remember that somehow, at some point I was on my feet and he pulled me into his lap. In a room full of people, discussing pedagogy, he pulled me into his lap. I squealed and jumped up, trying not to fall over, avoiding his long legs in hiking boots, hoping that my laughter, the smile on my face, would sufficiently masked the horror that I felt. I didn’t want his attention, I didn’t want his compliments, I didn’t want to sit on his lap and feel his body against mine. I just wanted to talk about how to help my students understand why it was important to build ideas of race equity and gender identity into their stories. I just wanted to talk with fellow educators about how to awaken consciousness in our student artists, and why it was important to do so. And somehow, he undid all that.

Could anyone else in that circle see beneath my desperate urge to go along with things was a deep discomfort at this man’s attention and behavior? Could anyone else see my shame, my discomfort? Could anyone have helped, stepped into the space I couldn't occupy?

I don’t know. I can’t remember. I don’t remember any of the smart or challenging things others said in that workshop. All I remember is that his hands, his actions, his selfishness, stained me with shame.

I’m still washing it out of my hair.

*

As a teacher, I work hard at dismantling the power structures in play in the classroom space. Some of them I can’t do much about; but I try to be a human in my classroom. I’m not a greater authority on your practice or your body than you are. I don’t shield my students from my humanity; the more I teach, the more I find teaching to be a kind of exchange of energy. Here’s what I mean: a student who wants to be in class, who wants to study with you and learn with you, will bring out the best in you as a teacher, will ask you to hold space and rise up in your craft, and make you grow. They will bring their baggage into the room, and sometimes the practice (of asana, or writing, or ceramics or statistics or whatever) will help them shed it, and sometimes the practice will cause them to sling that baggage all over the room. They will give off energy, they’ll discharge as they pursue clarity, discovery, and ultimately transformation. My job as a teacher is to hold enough space that they can process and discharge as they need to, without harming others, and without taking their energy, their past, present or future, into myself. I gotta let them work it out, and reflect back what I see, and not let any of that shit stick to me at the end of the day. As teachers, we can hold that energy, but man, we can’t absorb it, and we sure as shit can’t need it. This makes the whole Social Media-Followers-hits-likes nature of our work particularly problematic. (Teachers, this means we gotta guard our prana like its fucking gold, but that’s a post for another day.)

This doesn’t mean that I don’t have issues in the classroom. I struggle with feeling rejected or mistrusted in class; my ego often gets in the way of how I can help others. There’s a lot of work for me to do around holding the boundaries of my role as teacher with integrity, and allowing folks who want less from me to take less from me, without feeling some kind of way about it.

A lot of work.

But because I am a person in leadership in the room (if not power, right, shifting sands of what it means to lead from up front, from behind, quietly, forcefully, etc.), my work is to not draw on the energy the students discharge with any kind of need from them: no matter how sad or lonely, desperate or empty, small or ugly I may feel on a given day/week/season, my job is to offer, to witness, to contain, and then, after all the class is over and all the students have gone, to shed and discharge completely so I can return to my own life and work my own shit out.

*

This is not easy work, the work of leadership. Even if the men in our world who are falling like so much timber were actually clean, had their own shit sorted so that they didn’t have to prey on women and folks, it would still be hard. But the sheer volume of dudes—fuckin’ dudes—who are being revealed as harassers, as predators, as assailants makes it clear that this isn’t just about this dude or that dude not dealing with his narcissism or insecurity or inadequacy (though there is no shortage of that, damn). It’s about the systems of power, of white supremacy, of toxic masculinity, that have perpetuated this damage and harm for centuries and across cultures. Systems this destructive require systemic change, and anger without direction doesn’t create change, it creates cathartic chaos.

We’re still at the bomb-throwing point of this revolution, a reactive stage at which nuance can go into hiding. But while anger can start a revolution, in its most raw and feral form it can’t negotiate the more delicate dance steps needed for true social change.
— TIME magazine, Person of the Year 2017 (see link above)

Some of us believe in the righteous, cleansing power of anger. Like fire. I believe in this. I also believe that anger untreated with direction, without vision and compassion and forgiveness, will harden and atrophy us into gnarled, incomplete versions of ourselves that no amount of practice will make soft and supple.

Sisters: you are angry. Me, too. (see what I did there?) I am angry with you. Be angry. Be angry as long as you need to, and not one moment longer. Do not be imprisoned by your anger. Do not lose track of the humanity of your assailant in your anger. Much as your pain and disappointment wants to paint him as a monster, don’t do it. That’s the easy thing to do, that’s the collapse into anger. Instead of collapsing into anger, ride it like a wave, and hold onto the idea that that totally fucked-up thing that he did hasn’t made him inhuman. More fucked-up, without question, and maybe even less human. He has earned the consequences of his deplorable, violent behavior. But he's not inhuman; for to lose track of his humanity is to lose a larger part of your own humanity, and nothing good comes of that. You aren’t helped, he isn’t helped, and equally important, that cycle of psycho-sexual vampirism is just perpetuated into the next generation. I am not telling us to calm down, that we're being hysterical, or overreacting. I'm saying that all of the shitty experiences we've had at the hands of dudes doesn't let us off the hook of doing our own svadhyaya

Brothers: Fuck getting your house in order, burn that shit down and start from scratch, because the shit you have "built" is fucking unacceptable. Evaluate every conversation you have had. Apologize. Mean it. Control yourself. Grow up. Ask first. Ask first, motherfucker, and back the fuck up if we say no. You know that fear you’re feeling, realizing that the sisters have had it with being your fucking doormats and holes in mattresses and objects for sadistic amusement and destruction? That fear we live with every day: in staff meetings and on the subway and on the street and in the break room and the elevator and the classroom. Examine the systems that you’ve created that gave birth to this, and realize that because you haven’t destroyed the shit, we’re doing it for you. We have fucking had it.

Sisters&Brothers&Folks: Let us promise ourselves, and maybe one another, that after the anger has burned off, and the fear has subsided enough that we can take few deep breaths, that we will build something better: systems of education, of shared work, of government and community leadership, systems that are rooted in transparency, equity, compassion and accountability. We need it. Our kids need it, and our kids’ kids. It is time for positive, systemic change, change that happens in community. The world is groaning underneath the pressure of our viral, selfish systems. I refuse to believe that we are so far gone that we can’t return from the destructive, deplorable usury that defines how we treat each other. I have to: radical hope is our best weapon.

 

 

*polygyny is the practice of having more than one wife. Polygamy is gender neutral.

**this isn’t true. I'm telling a true story because it feels relevant. But don't get distracted about who this guy is. Knowing who he is really isn't worth your time, and it isn't my point.