Choosing to Tread Another Path

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently on paths. Established hiking trails and sidewalks, escalators and even rock crawls marked by arrows.

And I’ve been especially appreciative for the healing that comes from this time walking—not only hiking, but standing, marching, experiencing the mobility associated with movement, strengthening and using my body, contemplating my embodied existence, and examining the various privileges and positionings associated with this embodiment.

While walking these varied paths, I’ve also been thinking about how much needs to change about our current world. Making change isn’t as simple as swapping out elected officials or taking part in the political process. Rather, I think we’re at a critical point of needing to re-rethink everyday and taken-for-granted ways of being. To de-routinize the routine. To let go of what’s become normalized.

Because oppression is everyday. Marginalization is routine. Violence is normalized.

Choosing Alternate Paths

Thinking about paths—and the ways that we’re conditioned to follow established ones—I’m wondering, as Sara Ahmed does, whether we might need to stop treading on familiar paths and instead create some new ones. Ahmed observes the possibility that when we abandon well-trodden paths, their lines fade:

“We can see the path as a trace of past journeys. The path is made out of footprints—traces of feet that ‘tread’ and that in ‘treading’ create a line on the ground. When people stop treading the path may disappear. And when we see the line of the path before us, we tend to walk upon it, as a path ‘clears’ the way. So we walk on the path as it is before us, but it is only before us as an effect of being walked upon … Lines are both created by being followed and are followed by being created.” (Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology, p. 16)

There are important functions to paths, such as making the world easier to navigate. Yet, “going along with” the established path is the sort of “going along with” that prevents questioning, much less interruption, of the everyday route and routine. And questioning seems important to noticing, imagining, rethinking, and healing. When I walk down a different sidewalk, I certainly see different bits of the world. How might I see the world differently—and change it—just by choosing alternate paths?

Walking Backward on Moving Walkways

Paths offer a useful way to imagine resistance. Beverly Tatum describes systemic racism as the airport’s moving walkway, using the metaphor to help us see the different consequences of actively pursuing/doing harm, remaining still/complacent within an existing system, and intentionally taking action (like turning around and walking backward) to resist:

“I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in active racist behavior has identified with the ideology of White supremacy and is moving with it. Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. Some of the bystanders may feel the motion of the conveyor belt, see the active racists ahead of them, and choose to turn around, unwilling to go in the same destination as the White supremacists. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt—unless they are actively antiracist—they will find themselves carried along with the others.” (Beverly Daniel Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations About Race, p. 11-12)

Like following the established path, standing still on the moving walkway perpetuates systemic oppression that is already part of everyday life. Such metaphors help us think about how everyday and familiar actions—like walking—can do harm, even when the intention isn’t to harm. And this distinction between intention and outcome is important for understanding how we all do harm. Microaggressions happen many times throughout the day, often without the intention to harm, but are harmful nonetheless.

From my recent experiences hiking, I think about how trails cause erosion. When the land becomes too hurt, signs are put up asking hikers to stay off fragile areas and to use bypass routes toward helping with restoration. Like recognizing that erosion comes from simply walking on established trails, I hope to explain that harm can be done by simply “going along with” what’s familiar, what’s already established, what’s already moving forward.

Certainly, walking off trail or turning around to walk against the moving walkway requires many kinds of strength. And I believe the emotional strength for de-routinization and de-normalization requires courage, self-love, and willingness to see one’s self doing harm. Rather than denying that my hiking causes damage to the earth, I recognize that I contribute to erosion, and I try to figure out how to hike with lower impact. Similarly, in recognizing my own contribution to systemic –isms (racism, sexism, classism, etc.), I commit to ongoing and necessary steps.

Together, may we let go of the established paths and work to build new, more equitable, more just walkways. In other words, may we choose to tread another path.

 

Appreciating Rahawa Haile’s “Going It Alone” for the Hiking-Justice Connection

As someone interested in and impacted by the outdoors, hiking, human connection, harmful historical legacies, and ever-present white supremacy, I absolutely love and highly recommend Rahawa Haile’s article “Going It Alone”:

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Haile shares her experience through-hiking the Appalachian Trail as a queer black woman. Here are a few of my favorite lines:

  • “By the time I made it through Maryland, it was hard not to think of the Appalachian Trail as a 2,190-mile trek through Trump lawn signs.”
  • “Harriet Tubman is rarely celebrated as one of the most important outdoor figures in American ­history, despite traversing thousands of miles over the same mountains I walked this year.”
  • “There were days when the only thing that kept me going was knowing that each step was one toward progress, a boot to the granite face of white supremacy.”

In trying to figure out why this piece so deeply speaks to me, I realize how much I crave stories of hiking (like Amanda “Zuul” Jameson’s Brown Girl on the (P)CT and Garnette Cadogan’s “Walking While Black”) that challenge the assumptions of whiteness, walking as white activity, and the outdoors as white space.

I crave so deeply ways of re-seeing and relating differently with my childhood home in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Haile names places where I’ve spent much time and where I’ll be visiting again this summer: the Smokies and Shenandoah, Roan Mountain and Gatlinburg. These are places I feel within my body, both in the sense of heart expansion and heart ache. These are places I’ve fled and yet still seek again. These are places with deep legacies of racial, colonial, and other traumas that underwrite contemporary white nationalism.

Haile gives voice to the struggle of craving the expansive mountains, the blue ridges, and the relationship with birds and bears, while confronting Confederate flags, Trump signs, and stores selling blackface soap.

Haile gives voice to the differential risks, to the differently embodied realities, and to the significantly different threats that she (a queer black woman) and I (a straight white woman) face when walking in the woods.

Haile also gives voice to the need to keep going, to keep walking, and to keep writing. To put one’s “boot to the granite face of white supremacy.” Haile reminds me to commit yet again my body, my words, and my actions toward justice.

So, how do I “make actionable” a commitment to racial justice, especially as a hiker?

I certainly don’t have a full answer, but the work includes:

  • Intrapersonal work: ongoing reflexivity and introspection, especially toward noticing more, disrupting biases, and changing my own limiting self-talk;
  • Interpersonal work: writing, teaching, and interacting—with others and often in relationship—to raise awareness and to make change; and
  • Institutional work: channeling time, talents, and financial resources into organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, Rethinking Schools, the YWCA, and America’s Black Holocaust Museum, which work for larger institutional change.

When I’m out on the trail, I’m engaged mostly in intrapersonal and interpersonal work—talking with myself, with hiking partners, and sometimes with others I meet along the trail. Part of why I love hiking is that it allows for long timespans that become more meditative, more contemplative as the body and the brain tire. I find that the more removed I am from my everyday habits and habitat, the more I can de-normalize damaging scripts that have become internalized. Like the meaning I find on my yoga mat, time on the trail is essential for healing, reorienting with gratitude, confronting my shadow self, and refueling my commitment to justice.

As I reflect on these components of making my commitment actionable, I’m thinking also about the ways my privileged positioning (e.g., as white, U.S.-born, cis-gender, able-bodied, economically secure) makes the trail a space of such possibility for me and for people who look, talk, and move like me. And this a reality—that outdoors spaces are made inaccessible and inhospitable for many people—makes the need for justice all-the-more urgent.

A case in point:

Last summer I had too little water at the trailhead for Big Schloss, a trail running a ridgeline between Virginia and West Virginia with outstanding views on clear days. My partner Jonathan and I thought there’d be water at the trailhead; yet, the well was dry. We asked others for water, and two white hikers returning to their cars emptied their bottles for us. I felt a sense of comradery with these other hikers, and I felt courage (surely from white privilege) in asking for help.

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I also was sure that if we couldn’t get water from fellow hikers, we couldn’t do this day hike (the closest gas station was miles away, so we’d spend our time driving instead of hiking). On the drive into Big Schloss, we’d passed many confederate flags (easily more than 10), and I couldn’t see myself knocking on any doors to ask for water. I remember feeling fairly vulnerable in this rural area.

And here’s what I want to remember and communicate more widely: my feeling of vulnerability arose from a trauma that’s shared, that’s part of the U.S. collective, yet is experienced so differently and with such potentially different consequences. As a white woman—especially when hiking in partnership with a white man—my concerns are primarily about emotional hurt. In contrast, hikers of color face the U.S. legacy of lynching (the hate crime of murder) that is part of America’s Black Holocaust that continues today through both microaggressions and macro-structures like unchecked police violence, the school-to-prison pipeline, the cycle of poverty, voter disenfranchisement, and many other institutional issues. Haile addresses how such legacies impact not only human interactions but also basic choices like how to protect one’s body from cold and wind and not be perceived as a threat/target of hate crimes.

My pain of traveling in the Appalachian Mountains, which are so in my blood, involves being re-traumatized with each confederate flag, each Trump sign, each park or trail name that celebrates “founding fathers” and other prominent figures who took part in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, forced Indian removal, colonization, genocide, and other atrocities. I think it’s important, though ever-painful, to take notice of such physical manifestations of ongoing dehumanization, especially as they show up in “the outdoors” or “the wilderness.”

Truly, all spaces are social constructed, so it’s important to keep asking: Whose stories do these spaces tell? Whose stories aren’t told? And why? What can be done toward recovery, retelling, and rewriting?

It’s important, too, to inquire into and take notice of the racialization of space and spatialization of race. As a white woman, this means asking about how my body works within spaces, especially along trails and the roadways that connect and supply trails.

Thank you Rahawa Haile for “Going It Alone”! This is an article I’m sure to come back to again and again. I so appreciate how it’s shaking up and shedding light on the connection between hiking and pursuing justice.

Why I’m Vegan: Doing Something Small and Sustained

Being vegan, for me, is about imperfectly striving for justice.

Rather than all-or-nothing thinking, it’s small-but-sustained action.

It’s not a finished state, but about always being in the middle (and mess and muck) of it all.

It’s constant, everyday, and enduring—something that keeps me focused daily on the long haul toward justice.

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Of the many reasons why I’m vegan, an important one is the ritual of doing something every day (actually many times throughout the day—whenever I eat) that keeps me re-articulating my commitments and re-committing to justice.

As an always/ever-recovering perfectionist, I understand the thinking that critiques this imperfect action, for it will always inevitably fall short. I also understand the experience of being overwhelmed by the weight of so much to do when there’s so much hurt in the world. When feeling overwhelmed, anything more than critique can feel like too much.

Yet, I also know that all-or-nothing thinking leads to weariness (from shouldering such weight). And weightier projects (whether writing books, changing relations, or working to redress wrongs) are done bit by bit. Shifts are made through doing something small that’s sustained over time.

Important thinking about social change emphasizes the significance of small actions over time. Take these few examples (from different activist traditions and with different sorts of misattribution):

  • “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”—Margaret Mead
  • “You don’t have to see the whole staircase; just take the first step.”— Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • “The people are the only ones capable of transforming society.”—Rigoberta Menchu
  • “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”—Mahatma Gandhi
  • “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”—Mother Teresa

These memorable quotes promote a sense that doing something (however imperfectly, however small) is better than waiting for change, a sentiment that educator Paulo Freire similarly expressed in dialogue with Myles Horton:

“I am convinced that in order for us to create something, we need to start creating. We cannot wait to create tomorrow, but we have to start creating today.”—We Make the Road by Walking (56)

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Truly, we make the road by walking. And as a hiker, I know that walking involves stumbles, falls, cuts, and scrapes—and also some of the most amazing experiences, views, interactions, and learning along the way. Walking builds strength and endurance, so the simple act of walking makes what was previously unimaginable (like climbing mountains or going long distances) possible.

This metaphor of walking guides me as I practice being vegan. And I do see it as a practice with everyday actions, reminders, rituals, questions, and curiosity.

So, why am I vegan? It’s not only for the cookie dough, but also for the constant striving and small-but-sustained action. It’s for doing something to enact a more just world, even if that something is imperfect.

Gratitude for/on Earth Day

Earth Day snuck up on me this year.

Though I wasn’t thinking about this annual event, I was in the midst of writing blog posts about why I’m vegan, how hiking supports my commitment to justice, and why there’s cause to be alarmed with the world right now. All of these posts communicate the importance of environmental justice and connections between how we treat the earth and how we treat each other. In other words, environmental justice is also about racial justice, indigenous rights, the poor people’s campaign, and related movements for justice.

So, I’d like to honor Earth Day, its efforts to make visible a larger grassroots environmental movement, its too-often unacknowledged roots in indigenous epistemology, and its call for a different relationship with “the earth”—with land, water, animals, and more.

Truly, there’s so much work to do, and I appreciate the people who marched for science today. Today I needed to take a break, to spend time recharging outdoors, and to experience the healing power of nature (or ecotherapy).

As a way to honor this day—Earth Day—I’ll share a few statements of gratitude:

For national and state parks that need public support, funding, and protection to guard against escalating attacks (like Kohler-Andrae in Wisconsin), I am grateful.

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For the love of being vegan and for more readily-available vegan options (like this avocado reuben sandwich from Urban Beets in Milwaukee), I am grateful.

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For the privilege to experience healing through play, I am grateful.

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For seeing two muskrats, who give me courage to swim in emotionally murky waters (to dive deeper into introspective self-work), I am grateful.

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For befriending a cat who reminded me of my childhood companion Fuzzy Fat (and being guided by this cat to remember formative emotional experiences), I am grateful.2017-04-22 20.15.12

For the ability to write, reflect, and share this gratitude, I am grateful.

I’d love to hear how YOU are honoring the earth, your earthly self, and Earth Day. Stories to share? Calls to action? Photos from marches? Hope from the light of spring?

Mucking around in the Mess of Inauguration Day

This post wasn’t planned. It wasn’t the “next up” in my drafting schedule to write a new piece weekly in 2017 (#52essays2017). Yet, it’s flowing forth this morning, as I try to make sense of this day before me. An inauguration day? A general strike? A media black-out? A ramp-up to coordinated global demonstrations?

What I worry about—and why I feel the need to write—is that I’m experiencing the day as a day like any other. A day that makes complicity possible. A day of routinization. A day that normalizes what should never been normal.

Today I’m in Madison (Wisconsin), where I’ll march with friends tomorrow. As I set up for daily writing in a local coffee shop, I overhear a number of conversations—all among white people (or at least people who appear white). Among the conversations, people talk about an upcoming football game with excitement (apparently, the Packers are doing well in playoff games). And the “chunky monkey” smoothie is the best someone’s ever had, leading to discussion of various smoothie recipes (and would you believe that I planned to post a smoothie recipe next?!?). And two older white people are talking about Trump’s election.

They just don’t understand, they say.

Racism was a “non-issue” when growing up, they say.

They remember class mattering—they knew whose parents worked at the local plant and whose didn’t—but even then, they treated everyone with respect, they say.

And they know they’re biased “a little,” but not in a big, “harmful way,” they say.

They just don’t understand what’s happening these days. “Is it this younger generation?” They say.

And their conversation reminds me of another …

As a teacher, I so often have conversations with younger white people, people who express shock, confusion, and anger when realizing their own power, privilege, and sense of security (as opposed to vulnerability and precarity).

After Trump’s election, I was told by someone around the age of 20 that they’re really proud to be a millennial, that their generation is really open to talking about racism, and that they’re certainly “less racist” than their parents and grandparents.

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I’ve been gifted access to these two conversations side-by-side. So, what do I make of them?

I’m wondering if white people are beginning to realize that white people are doing and have done harm, but it’s still easier to imagine other people (i.e., other generations of white people) as responsible?

I’m thinking about the title of this blog (heart-head-hands) and wondering how white people develop the emotional intelligence—the heart space—to do significant self-work. Such self-work would involve rewriting narratives rooted in white ignorance. It would also involve thinking about why we talk about football or smoothies instead of the day’s inauguration, strikes, media black-out, or forthcoming demonstrations. It would involve mobilizing this feeling and thinking toward acting.

When I started writing this post—this totally unplanned post—I began with a single line: “We’re all mired in the muck.”

I kept looking at this line and seeing myself literally covered in mud, as I so often am when hiking (and, ironically enough, am a bit today, as I trucked through melting snow in what’s likely to be the hottest year on record).

The thing about mud is that the more you try to wipe it away, the more it spreads or gets deeply ingrained in fabric. It certainly can slow movement, add extra weight, and look unpleasant. And yet it’s absolutely possible to keep walking with and through mud. If I let the mud stop me, I would miss out on so many trails, so many sights, so much time in my most reflective and relaxed state.

So, yes: we’re mired in the muck, but I hope we’ll keep walking/working right through it. If we’re truly committed to the long haul toward justice, then we must attend to the terrain (to see and understand the muck or mud), but also not get so tripped up in it that we fail to move forward, to accept responsibility, or to imagine and enact visions of the “ought to be.”

Re-Reading Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

In preparation for a course I’m teaching this spring (“Writing for Social Justice”), I’m lucky to be re-reading Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. In this powerful YA novel, Alexie describes growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation and navigating interactions in the rural, white high school.

Alexie’s narrative reveals much about systemic inequities, colonization, marginalization, and disenfranchisement. I hope students will relate to the main character Junior (Arnold Spirit) and find their way into thinking about central concepts of (in)equity, (in)justice, agency, power, and rights, which we’ll be studying throughout the semester.

I’ve loved this book since I first read it in 2008. That summer, I took The Absolutely True Diary on a multi-day hiking trip. I’d spend each day thinking about the book while hiking and each evening reading in the dim light of remote huts. Being removed from my daily life and with long stretches of time for reading + reflection, I read with a sense of both/and—both true separation from Junior’s experiences and total immersion in the importance of his story and its implicit call to action.

As I’m reading this time, I’m taking notes on major themes/takeaways for social justice, tracing the emotions impacting different characters (heart); key social, cultural, historical, and educational concepts (head); and the potential for action (hands). Here is my list, which is sure to be revised as the semester begins and as I process with students.

I’d love reflections, additions, or suggestions by any of you who have read the book. And if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it!

Themes/Takeaways for Social Justice:

  • Identities are always already intersectional: Race, class, gender, ability, geographic/regional location, nationality, ethnicity, linguistic background, religion, sexuality, and other facets of ourselves—cannot be disentangled or pulled apart, but instead shape all our lived experiences.
  • Oppression and privilege are embodied: Our bodies hold histories, legacies, generational knowledges, grief, joy, and even trauma and injustice.
  • White people interfere in many ways and typically with/through “good intentions.”
  • Oppression is internalized, limiting one’s sense of self-worth and erecting so many barriers/boundaries to jump over—and at every possible level: with one’s self, at home, in one’s community, and outward to the nation-state and international relations.
  • Both internalized oppression and internalized privilege/supremacy are pathologies—and with very different historical, social, and material consequences.
  • Schooling in the United States is, by design, separate and unequal. While the myth of the meritocracy persists, students encounter entirely different educational experiences—with many students facing what Jonathan Kozol has called “savage inequalities” (or grossly underfunded schools that cheat people out of their futures).
  • As a gendered construction, masculinity limits knowledge about and expression of emotions. At the same time, masculinity over-emphasizes/encourages physical dominance (e.g., fist fights and basketball). Men’s friendships, then, are shaped by the suppression of emotional expression—despite the obvious emotional tenor of any/all friendships—and by related performances of heteronormativity.
  • We always choose: if not solidarity, then complicity. Though only a few may be bullies, many make the bullying possible. In the words of Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Or, as Elie Wiesel put it: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
  • Inequities stack up and feed into each other, so that colonialism walks hand-in-hand with systemic racism … and racism with loss of land and resources … and loss of land and resources with poverty … and poverty with dis-ease … and dis-ease with addiction/alcoholism … and addiction with death … and death with grief … and grief with loss of spirit, of hope. This downward spiral (or cycle of socialization) necessitates a total overhaul to break such structurally sustained dehumanization.
  • Hope is so important and so complicated! As Alexie writes (in Junior’s words): “I don’t know if hope is white. But I do know that hope for me is like some mythical creature” (51). It’s associated with possibility, mobility, and self-determination. Systems of oppression/colonialism/marginalization work, in part, by shutting down hope. In turn, any movement for justice must involve reclaiming hope.

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Welcoming Winter by Looking Within

I haven’t always loved caves.

I remember years of summer camp when I was so afraid of entering “the bat cave” that I worried about this outing for days ahead of time and even sat out a year or two. Yet, growing up in Tennessee and spending summers in Kentucky (the land of limestone, sink holes, and caverns), I learned to love—truly enjoy, crave, and seek time visiting—caves.

Today, when I ask myself why I love caves, I realize that entering the earth feels like burrowing into myself—and in a grounded way. Metaphorically, the cave feels like a supportive hug. Literally, the cave is dark and quiet, a space that invites introspection.

Think of the long traditions of people meditating, soul-searching, and undertaking rites of passage in caves. Or of Plato constructing the “allegory of the cave,” a narrative of confronting illusion. Or of bears hibernating through winter and reawakening in the spring, a time of renewal.

Cave symbolism includes reflection and looking within, darkness and confronting shadow, winter and being inactive, the moon and embracing feminine energy.

As I seek to know and act from my best self, I look within. As I seek to befriend the feminine and see it as a source of strength, I learn from dreaming. As I seek to stand TALL and speak my truth, I find voice in silence.

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As I enter into winter (there’s already snow on the ground and temperatures well below freezing here in Wisconsin), I resolve to tune into how I’m feeling, what I’m thinking, and what I can do. I resolve to listen to my inner voice and its whispers (before my body yells through pain or other means for attention). I resolve to be truer to my truths, my commitments, and my joys. I resolve to work toward radical self-love, knowing that the more I invest in loving myself, the better I can love others, the more fully I can show up, the more forcefully I can serve.

White fragility persists because of insecurity, defensiveness, and fear of messing up. Similarly, internalized sexism relies on layers of emotions that are not only inherited but also implicitly driving thoughts and actions. Looking within—deep, ongoing, reflexive work—is needed to counter these and so many interlocking pieces of systemic oppression.

So, this winter I give myself permission to enter the cave, to embrace my bear-like desire to hibernate, and to look within toward making some BIG changes. I know that this blog is part of those changes, as it’s an active practice to let go of perfection. To speak out, I must get comfortable—really, really ok—with messing up, admitting wrong, recovering, and trying again.

Here I go with this practice!