As we near the end of spring semester, students in both my “Contemplative Writing” and “Writing for Social Justice” courses are pulling together projects to make interventions in some way. Several students are addressing rape culture, and one student is compiling a book of letters by and for survivors of sexual violence. She hopes that others at our university will read the letters, write additional ones, and add threaded response—facilitating healing through storytelling and solidarity-building.
I agreed to write a letter for her book, and I share that letter here with the hope that it speaks to others engaged with similar healing, storytelling, and solidarity-building work:
Every semester I’ve taught, students have shared with me stories of sexual violence and survival.
Every semester I’ve taught, I’ve seen sexual violence create new wounds and rip open old ones.
Every semester I’ve taught, I’ve raged at limited and lacking response.
Every semester I’ve taught, I’ve been encouraged by incredible resilience and creative healing.
These words are too few and do too little, but with a commitment to justice, I say to readers and to your friends-colleagues-peers who have experienced sexual violence:
I hear you. I see you. I believe you.
I hurt with you. I learn alongside you. I speak and write UP for you. I advocate for change. I call violence violence. I build critical imagination to envision more equitable ways of being.
I write as a professor who carries with me story upon story of sexual violence that I’ve been called to witness. I carry my own #metoo stories alongside those of family, friends, colleagues, and students. I’m learning how to hold these stories as gifted memories rather than weight holding me down, and I’m learning to leverage these stories toward collective healing, truth-telling, reckoning, and liberation. These stories matter, and so do we.
Blogging is often always a process of countering perfectionism and sharing words that feel not-ready, not-right, and not-refined. Writing this letter, however, twisted me in knots, as there are never ready, right, or refined words to speak into the violence I know many students are experiencing and even perpetuating.
As much as I value self-care, there are times when it flies out the window. I’m no longer the adult caring for my inner child, but I’m the toddler or teen full of emotion and pursuit of immediate pleasure.
This week, I’ve been really in touch with my 2-year-old self, who’s been demanding attention. When it’s running the show, I’m inclined to emotional meltdowns, sugar binges, irregular sleep, over-tired crying, and resistance to naps. I readily settle in front of the TV and need an adult to get my jacket and take me for a walk. When back from the walk, I find myself whining: “But I don’t want to take a bath …” even when baths are among my favorite things and absolutely calm me down.
There’s nothing like embodying my toddler self to remember that I have access to all my former ages and selves—and not only as memories but also as immediate actors and agents in my life.
Some years ago, when taking children’s literature courses, I remember hearing and repeating the line: “we’re all the ages we’ve ever been.” Versions of this quote have been attributed to Madeleine L’Engle and other authors, but I attribute it to my storytelling professor, who regularly stepped into characters of herself as a child, a young mother, an established researcher, and an elder storyteller. Through these characters, I could see such love for life and willingness to re-play past experiences. My professor performed the sort of deep revisiting of the past that I imagine my 2-year-old self is asking me to do when I’m in resistance mode.
Interestingly, in this week’s total toddler takeover, one of the few things I wanted to do was coloring, a form of art I’ve craved from a very young age. I also chose to color images of owls, symbolically associated with wisdom and aging. The more I layered colors, the more I could see the wisdom in honoring all my ages and in looking backward to look forward.
For now, I’ll hug myself close as I work on being a better parent to this 2-year-old who needs veggies and sleep. I can see (again) that there’s much to heal in my past if I am to make change in the present and future. I commit to this healing, as I commit to justice: work that involves deep revisiting of what’s old, what’s hidden, and what’s nevertheless demanding attention.
Each year, celebrating MLK Day also brings new opportunities for re-reading Dr. King’s words and re-seeing the work that he—and so many people working for racial justice—have envisioned.
MLK offers visions of the ought to be, of engaged activism, and of multi-racial movement-building. Such visions are essential to avoid getting stuck where we are and to spark imaginings of new and more equitable futures.
As a white woman witnessing, learning from, and participating in MLK Day, I’m reminded at this time of year how Dr. King’s legacy and wisdom can guide me in the work of visioning. His words keep me focused on what’s possible rather than thinking only about what’s problematic.
Specifically, three of Dr. King’s often-cited quotes keep me focused on my role in taking steps and speaking up, even when inevitably and always falling short of what I can, should, and want to do. With gratitude and humility, I hope to amplify these words and share how they provide guidance in my life today.
1. “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
Though I have trouble placing this quote’s origin, the King Center in Atlanta describes how Dr. King combined two scriptural verses into one to create this line. I’ve been repeating it for years, since noticing how white colleagues ask for professional development as a prerequisite to taking action. Ongoing learning is always important, yet I’ve seen how it can be used to delay, dismiss, and excuse away the responsibility to act.
Instead, taking some action, any action, matters. It helps us learn, gets us started, gives us practice, makes feedback available, and opens opportunities for additional actions. It helps us join and build relational networks, and it helps us develop habits or routines for taking action.
Taking a first step and a second and a third and so on adds up to sustained action, and the importance of “Doing Something Small and Sustained” is part of why I’m vegan for social, environmental, gender, and racial justice. Certainly, there are many more steps to take, but a daily commitment to taking steps helps grow momentum, while allowing for rest and self-care along the way.
2. “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
As part of the Steeler Lecture in 1967, these words remind me of the importance of breaking white silence, as silence does real harm. I remember the gut-punch I felt when watching many white friends and family remain silent after Charlottesville. After writing “For White Friends Using Social Media and Not Responding to Charlottesville,” some sincere conversations emerged with white folks who expressed “a loss of words” and the fear that they could do more harm by saying the wrong thing than by saying nothing at all.
Just as a fear of doing it wrong and the desire to “learn more” blocks taking action, a fear of saying it wrong and a desire to “listen more” blocks speaking up.
To these fears, I’d say that there are many ways to speak by amplifying the voices of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) who are already speaking up and leading the way. If you’re not reading and reposting feminists and womanists of color, consider doing so. Sharing the work and words of activists, scholars, and leaders of color help promote and make widely visible their leadership. Amplification is an important form of speaking and one that invites listening and learning too.
As a white woman, I also need to remind myself again and again and again to let go of perfectionism. The possibility of a “perfect” or even “right” way of speaking is another lie of internalized inferiority and superiority. I’m sure to trip over the words. I’m sure to do it wrong. I’m sure to confront my own limitations. But I’m also sure that I must speak up in order to practice, to get feedback, and to learn by doing (with the attitude of “try-try again”). And more than the importance of learning, the costs of complicity are too high.
3. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
I end with this line from Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” because it reminds me of the costs of failing to act or speak up. It reminds me why I must keep the reality of white supremacy and the commitment to racial justice at the fore throughout everyday living. It reminds me why an intersectional approach to justice is needed and why I have a role to play in this work. And it reminds me why imaginative, creative, critical visioning is so deeply needed.
As I spend MLK Day this year tuning into myself, I’m reminded that, like Dr. King’s words of wisdom, our embodied, lived experiences have much to teach us about how to act and speak up in the world. I’m resolving in 2018 to “Speaking Up by Speaking Aloud Embodied Responses,” even or especially when my body hurts and my voice shakes. I’m resolving, too, to use inner listening to learn more about when and where I can direct my energies, knowing that I have a role to play in the work for racial justice.
As we approach the new year, I find myself engaging in a personal “year in review”: looking back on 2017, questioning what I’ve learned, and setting intentions for the year to come. This review prompts reflection on my first year of blogging, which has been both improvisational and planned, both reaching beyond and helping me set better boundaries. Blogging, for me, has meant speaking up and starting something new and scary that represents larger changes rippling throughout my life. It’s also opened possibilities that I’m excited to explore as we head into 2018.
From this “year in review,” I share here 7 lessons that seem applicable for others, even beyond the realm of blogging:
1. Everyday life is a constant source of curiosity, inspiration, and learning. I wondered early on if I’d have difficulty creating content, but as my list of writing ideas continues to grow, I’m reminded of the richness and complexity of everyday life. I’m also reassured that my academic training in ethnography, conversation analysis, and other research methods translates well to the work of observing and writing about everyday living for justice. What I’m learning is that when stepping into unfamiliar ground, my background (or previous groundwork) makes new steps possible. I’m bringing my research, teaching, and healing experiences along with me, as I’m shifting into new roles and responsibilities associated with public writing.
2. Doing makes it so. Though I’d wanted to write publicly for many years and created this blog in 2016, I truly committed to regular, weekly posts in 2017. (I’m excited to say that this is my 52nd post this year!) The more that I’ve created and shared posts, the more that I’ve come to see myself as a public writer, creator, educator, and blogger. In other words, the activity of writing (verb) has helped me step into the identity of writer (noun). I’m learning from this experience that whenever I want to be _______ (fill in the blank), I need to do the associated activity. One current example: Because I want to be a hike guide and backpacker, I’m now prioritizing weight training. May carrying weight make me someone who can carry weight.
3. Community provides motivation and support. I’m especially grateful to Vanessa Mártir and the #52essays2017 writing group for helping me stay focused on steady, weekly writing. In the past, I’ve appreciated writing challenges like AcWriMo (Academic Writing Month), and now this year-long challenge has bolstered me, giving me courage to share my work before it feels ready. Being in community with other writers has kept me accountable, and it’s helped me set a sustainable pace. Now this rehearsed rhythm sustains me and my writing.
4. So much depends on others. Just as community has provided writing support, I’ve relied on and am deeply grateful for the many people who have read, made suggestions, shared, subscribed to, and supported the blog this year. Unexpected miracles and miraculous timing have propelled particular posts into being, and they’ve helped me form new relations and discover new spaces of creative conversation and community organizing. I’m realizing (again) the importance of learning from, with, and alongside others, while staying true to my own “strong YES.”
5. Writing supports self-awareness. While this blog relies on many people, it’s also become a space for me to do critical self-work, slowing down to reflect as I make sense of the world and my actions within it. As a writing teacher, I believe in the power of writing to engage in contemplation, identify patterns and outliers, see one’s own assumptions, set intentions, clarify commitments, and hold conversations with the self. Blog writing has engaged me in such processes this year, as I’ve used writing like yoga and meditation to look within and ask who I am and what I’m about. Writing feels like powerful spell-casting: the stuff of everyday divination wound up with resistance and artistic creation.
6. It’s important to act, even/especially before feeling ready or right. If I’ve learned nothing else in this year, it’s that perfectionism has been slowing me down and tripping me up (getting in my way for many years). Blogging has helped me interrupt this pattern by sharing work in-progress before I feel ready. In the process, I’m shaking off the sense that writing must be carefully reviewed before being seen. I’m recognizing that imperfectly acting is important not only with writing but also with speaking up, taking risks, and taking a stand. Standing TALL is about showing up and being seen, even when shaking, uncertain, and sure to still need revision.
7. The time to build is now. Through this first year of blogging, I’ve realized that it’s time to build: to build myself, my vision, my commitments, and my contributions. Building doesn’t mean starting from scratch, but securing the roots while expanding and growing. For this blog, my building will prioritize web development: creating a fuller website with a range of offerings. Early on, a primary concern with blogging was creating content. Now that I’m generating content, I need to make it accessible and navigable. I hope that investing in the blog aligns with collective investment in building, creating, and restructuring toward the world we’d like to see. Truly, the time to build is now. I look forward to building and hope you’ll want to build with me, too.
Thanks for accompanying me on the roller-coaster through 2017, on this journey through sweet and sour. I send many good wishes for the year ahead and recommit to blogging in 2018 as part of the long haul toward justice.
Of the many lessons I’m still learning, an important one is to trust life as it unfolds. I struggle with trust because I struggle with letting go of perfectionism and perceived control. Despite these struggles, whenever I soften attachments to my preferred timing and open instead to possibilities, miracles occur. And the more I open to miracles, the more I find HOPE, which is so greatly needed on the long haul toward justice.
Recently, I’ve had an important reminder to expect miracles (or at least miraculous timing) in everyday life:
A few weeks ago, I lost a mala that Marty Tribble custom-made for me after several Reiki sessions of discussing my desire/need for greater grounding, spiritual connectedness, and trust in divine protection. Marty created this garnet bracelet and shipped it in a box with stenciled arrows, at the same time that I’d had an arrow drawn onto my hand during a summer retreat (pictured here).
I took the arrows to be a sign of the mala’s significance for decision-making and directional guidance.
The mala must have been helping me trust, because when I lost it, I trusted that it was where it needed to be and would reemerge at the right time. I was somehow sure that the mala wasn’t lost to me, but just buried from my view or consciousness.
This loss happened about a month ago, before I started 40 days of yoga nidra—a meditative practice that I’ve been doing at bedtime. I often fall asleep during the guided practice, and I’ve been having especially vivid, symbolic dreams. These powerful dreams, I believe, have been a continuation of yogic sleep in actual sleep.
Through this process, I’ve become more aware of how much self-work and self-healing happen through dreams and sleep. I’ve also become aware of the mala’s hiding place.
Just before leaving town for a full month’s travel, I changed my bed sheets and moved my mattress away from the headboard. That night, when practicing yoga asana on the floor, I saw the mala under the bed. It had likely been tucked within the bed frame, near my head for the past weeks of yoga nidra. Despite my perception of having “lost” the mala, it was exactly where it needed to be: physically in my bed, supporting yoga nidra practice, and present for self-work during sleep.
The timing of its re-emergence has felt divinely orchestrated, too. Since I’m now traveling for a month, my home bed is no longer my practice space. By making its presence known, the mala is able to travel with me. I’m again wearing it as a bracelet during days and keeping it near my bed at nights.
I share this story of the lost-and-found mala because it’s the sort of everyday miracle that gives me hope at this time. It’s a reminder, especially in this week of the winter solstice and many religious celebrations, of the importance of trusting divine timing, especially when choosing to tread another path.
I share this story, too, because it’s opened for me a series of new questions:
What needs to change in my approach to everyday living if I am to act as though miracles are already present and possible?
A little more than a year ago, I wrote the following statement to describe this blog project:
“Embodied knowledge matters. So do commitments. And especially acting on commitments as part of everyday life, BIG and small. This blog shares ongoing efforts of feeling, thinking, and doing for justice. Posts include reflections, recipes, research, and resources: all seek to make sense of what it means to live a life for justice.”
This language signals that, at best, I’m attempting to live for justice and to share these attempts. What this means is that the everyday-ness of lived experience goes hand-in-hand with seeking or striving for justice. Striving means that I experience moments of getting closer to living in alignment with a more just, truer, and committed life. And I also experience moments when I’m far, far away and out of alignment with this goal. My hope is that I learn from my own incongruity and that the moments of alignment grow more regular. This learning—along with attempting, seeking, and striving—builds resilience for “the long haul” toward justice.
Such a hope leads me to reflect on the moments when I fall short of my commitments. Recently, I broke a commitment to a co-author and close friend, and I contributed to a larger pattern of co-authors falling away from important projects, a pattern that calls up pain. And I’ve been reminded again that pain can be an important teacher.
As a white woman (a white, cis-gender, able-bodied, U.S.-born, upper/middle-class, raised-Christian woman), I’ve inherited internalized inferiority and superiority aligned with the narrative of being a “good person”—a narrative that I’m always needing to unravel and unlearn. The more I let go of the need to be a “good person,” the more I can be just a person—a whole, human, and messy person. And as a person (not a super-human and not a dehumanized being), I can see and confront the harm that I do.
Breaking my co-authoring commitment did harm in my friendship, and it did harm by contributing to a pattern of broken commitments around justice-oriented research. It also did harm because of the material consequences for my co-author, who’s already experiencing precarity, overwork, and a particularly stressful semester.
R—recognizing experiences, thoughts, feelings, conditions, etc. A—allowing the states of being, no matter how bad, embarrassing, or privileged. I—investigating deeply to gain new or additional understanding. N—non-judging or non-identifying to avoid attachment with the experience, emotion, and even understandings (toward embracing impermanence).
Here’s what RAIN has looked like for me, as I’ve been exploring my broken commitment:
Recognize that I’ve broken the commitment; that I’ve done harm to my friend, and because I love my friend, to myself as well; and that this harm is painful. Recognition feels important for taking responsibility and also for naming the complex dynamics within the larger situation. It feels important for seeing the links between this particular broken commitment and larger, systemic injustice.
Accept the pain. Like joy, pain is part of life—not something to push down or pretend isn’t there, but to see, experience, and get curious about. I keep asking: “Pain, what do you have to teach me? How can I learn from you about making commitments I can truly keep?”
Investigate the fuller situation. The more I get curious (instead of shutting out the pain), the more I can see how I’ve been operating in contradiction. On the one hand, I’ve been wanting to follow my “strong YES,” and on the other hand, I’ve been wanting to please others. On the one hand, I’ve been wanting to redirect my energies (away from this particular project and direction in my life), and on the other hand, I’ve been wanting to keep what’s familiar and comfortable about this established direction.
Though I’m aware that I get into trouble when not listening for/to my “strong YES,” I didn’t act on my intuition at the time of committing to the project, and that’s likely when incongruity entered the scene. What I see now is that instead of investing in meaningful relations with other people (including with my co-author and friend), I’ve actually been creating trouble for others by not honoring myself and my “strong YES.” Do I really want to undermine myself and my relations in this way? What will I need to change in order to trust, act from, and speak aloud my “strong YES”?
Not identify with judgments about being a person who keeps or doesn’t keep commitments, who does good or harm in the world, or who is static in ways that limit the complexity of full personhood. Not identifying means that I try to see this moment as though I’m floating above it at a distance. It won’t look or feel like this in the future, though it’s part of the many experiences that I’ll carry forward and hopefully continue to learn from. It’s now part of my history, but it also doesn’t singly or solely define me.
The RAIN process has been helpful in looking at my actions, in staying close to tough emotions, and to investing at this moment of pain. It’s often the moments when we’re noticing gaps between our everyday actions and our goals that real growth takes place. It’s also moments like these when there’s a lot of potential for developing resilience and long-term, staying power.
So, in the midst of processing a broken commitment, I’m re-committing to everyday attempts and the ongoing process of striving to live a life for justice. I’m sure to mess up and cause harm in the process, but may the moments of alignment become more and more. May I better align my actions with my beliefs. May I know and follow my commitments and my “strong YES.” May I stand TALL and true (truer and truer) for justice.
In the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about when and how I tune into my “strong YES” for decision-making. I find that I’m truer to myself when I’m following Marty Tribble’s guidance: “The absence of a strong YES is actually a no.” Reflecting on this advice is what led me to write “Using Your ‘Strong Yes’ to Guide Career Decisions” for Inside Higher Ed:
I hope that this article helps others tap into the strong YES not only for navigating job searches and career decisions, but also for everyday decision-making and living for justice. I share in this article five strategies for finding the strong YES:
1. Follow the deeper breath.
2. Check in with the heart, head, and hands.
3. Keep an emotion journal.
4. Look for signs in everyday life.
5. Look inward through guided meditation.
Each of these strategies asks us to prioritize embodied knowledge, inner knowing, and emotional literacies that we too-often downplay or discount, especially in higher education.
Each of these strategies asks us to unlearn ways of being-doing-living that keep us limited to less than our whole selves, less than fully human and messy.
Each of these strategies asks us to slow down through imperfect meditation and other contemplative practices so that we stop shutting out what hurts and instead get to know ourselves and our commitments with greater clarity.
Despite practicing these strategies, I still often act without checking in with my body, without intentionality, and instead with procedural efficiency. I’ve had several recent reminders—from dropping my phone to becoming sick—that I need to slow down and listen more carefully.
When I listen for/to my strong YES, I sometimes have to change plans. For example, recently I’ve sat on several blog posts, not sure if or when they’ll feel ready to share, and I’ve canceled several meetings, not sure if or when I’ll feel ready to have them.
Truly, listening for/to the strong YES is essential for de-routinizing dehumanization, yet it’s so hard to do because I love routines, even when they undermine well-being. Similarly, the strong YES is essential for countering the lies of internalized inferiority and superiority, yet I’m so attached to these lies that I resist letting go. Noticing routines and resistance helps me shift toward more careful, mindful listening.
Toward better listening, I am starting today a daily practice of yoga nidra that I hope will help me stay truer to myself and my commitments. As I work to align with my strong YES, I hope you’ll join me in asking:
How can I release the “shoulds” that inadvertently direct my days?
How can I notice (and be kinder to myself when I notice) that I’m acting without intention?
How can I better align my everyday living with my hopes and commitments?