In this work, I’ve learned that if I don’t define my own “I,” others will project theirs onto me, erasing me and reproducing the projection of their own fears. I know myself now—no others’ projections will annihilate my “I.”
In this work, I’ve learned that my forward momentum is mine—I own it. I’ve learned that when someone fucks with my ability to move forward, they fuck with my entire life. I’ve learned that when those humans steal my power to progress, they are liable. I’ve learned how to hold them accountable.
In this work, I’ve learned that those who say, “this is just how life is–it’s tough out there, get used to it!”—are full of shit. It doesn’t have to be this hard. People who don’t want to change (or know they never can) want us to believe life’s just rough—”always has been, always will be.” Their ugly view doesn’t have to be mine, doesn’t have to be anyone’s perspective who knows they can choose to orient differently.
In this work, I’ve learned to stand proudly in my naïveté. They tell me–in their condescending responses to my alarm, my objections, the evidence—that I’m just not experienced enough to recognize that they know what they’re doing. That’s bullshit: I’m experienced in ways they simply cannot understand. Their years creating the same damage doesn’t make them less naïve; it has made them blindly and dangerously destructive.
In this work, I’ve learned that some of them search for a personal or professional “flaw” that will silence my voice. Bullshit: No one has to be a saint to advocate for what’s right. Only those with the most to hide do it behind the defense of their own “sainthood.”
In this work, I’ve learned that those who console with non-unique claims–with hugs from the idea that “the carnage is everywhere, so it doesn’t really matter what you do, you may has well hang it up”—are also full of shit: those humans’ own disconnect orients them to ease me into the same disconnect. My present-ness in this work, however, gives me no choice but to stay in the actual.
She wakes, crying. Yesterday’s images won’t leave her mind: the laughing men with roaring chainsaws telling her to calm down; the world-shattering grind of chippers; all those newly gutted spaces where trunks and branches and leaves and roots—other beings’ worlds–used to stand. In this ghost town of a development, run by an outsized homeowner’s association, just one woman continues making all the decisions, to decimate an ethic, while destroying the homes of all the other beings here except the human beings.
It never stops—there are crews constantly cutting, slashing, slicing, chopping, breaking every single day, all over Sea Ranch. Shelter, homes, other beings’ infrastructure—now sticks and cut trunks and piles of chips. The human architecture—its surrounding “garden” freshly shorn— awaits the few human visitors it’ll see all year. Some humans stop in for a few days; others stay longer; just a few others live here year-round. The ghosts in the Sea Ranch ghost town — the “owners” who work with rental agencies to sell vacation spaces — use this fragile part of the California coast as an investment strategy. But they can’t see whose worlds they destroy because the approving woman silently stands between them and the obscenity of lost worlds.
She lies in bed, eyes closed, while the countless rabbits she’s seen huddling under gutted trees won’t leave her mind, because she knows she’ll see them again today. The quail scattering to find shelter and yelling for days, trying to find each other past the sheep’s electric fences and “weed” whackers. All the new bucks in the neighborhood, looking for food, hiding under shrubs because the trees are just standing trunks now. The big birds, looking for the missing big perches. The monarch butterflies, who should live in the Monarch Glen behind her house, disappearing because they can no longer overwinter in the cypresses next to the Glen. The Monterey Cypresses have been gutted by an angry “owner” next door who didn’t want to mow and “clean up” anymore. A wind tunnel hole lives there now.
There’s a scene in the movie, Lone Plains Drifter, where men with whips surround an unarmed man in the middle of a rural town. It’s nighttime, and all the townspeople are in their homes, silently looking out their windows. As they watch, the surrounded man is slowly whipped to death. No one comes out of their houses. No one yells, “stop!” No one tries to divert attention. No one does anything to help.
Once there lived a city of beings atop a great green canopy. The mindfully drifting wind swept silently over them all—young and old, rich and poor, humans and not–the wind going its own way, knowing only its purpose.
Each city-bound being–in her/his/their own fabulous fashion–clung tightly to the branches and leaves of the great green canopy, for clinging was their way of life, and resisting the wind is what each had learned from birth.
But one being spoke, at last: “I am tired of clinging. Though I cannot see it with my eyes, I see it in the art of its imprint, and I trust that the wind knows its purpose and where it’s going. I shall let go, and let the wind take me where it will, while I ride and dance.”
The other beings laughed and said, “Naive fool! Let go and that wind you trust will throw you tumbled and smashed across the jagged mountain!”
But the one being heeded them not, and taking a breath did let go, and at once was blown and tumbled away and smashed against the jagged mountain, bouncing back up onto the canopy. Clinging once again.
But, in time and possibilities and hope, the creature imagined a different ending: the knowing wind lifting her to fly. Refusing to cling with the rest, she let go and the wind lifted her free from the canopy, and she was bruised and hurt no more.
The being who let go, the one now carried by the wind, said, “The universe delights to lift us all free, if only we dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure. Our true purpose is riding and dancing on the wind of the universe so that others may see and let go, so they may learn to fly: so they may embrace the world from the sky.”
*Inspired by the opening tale in Illusions, by Richard Bach
she stands quietly in front of this other
this ghost of her former self:
the arguer, the fighter, the convincer
the one they used to fear
the one who was raised to protect them
the only one they know
her new arms open wide
her new emotions laid bare
her new vulnerability exposed
she reaches out to them for
a connection in crisis
she grasps for their hands to
hold in darkness:
thinking she’s found them,
she holds on tight
believing in love
and second chances
they sniff around her,
trying to find the other,
the second to her father: the enforcer
that shell now dissolved,
they can’t see her new form;
without the obscene forgery of
a father’s toxic vision
they orient toward air, missing her
forgotten in another world,
terrified of blinking out,
afraid of losing her grip on reality,
she sets fire to herself
in an email
screaming as loud as she knows how
from her isolation
to a sister she believes can hear her;
her sister’s cynicism watches silently
while she burns, in that other world
she reaches out again
this time, covered in
sparkling heart emojis
and punctuated by
dancing exclamation points
another sister fakes a full embrace:
choosing only the shiny “cute”
pieces of her to touch
while picking off all her other hard-won,
reclaimed pieces; ignoring them like
discarded pizza toppings
humble self-disclosures made trivial
vulnerability rolled over
an annoyed tone in an abrupt call
judging and evaluating her
with others she can’t see
sunny words offered to her
that sound like care
and dingier actions elsewhere
that deeply contradict
her smile is open,
but they can’t see her
her laugh an invitation,
but they can’t hear her
she reaches toward them,
but they pull their hands back
suspecting her motives,
mistrusting her urgency;
their curiosity about her
current condition satisfied
they turn away
every single time she’s fooled,
and she misjudges
blinded by hope and warmed by
happy family feelings, she forgets
it’s all just part of the social show
the concern expressed,
in professional tones
all the simulated hearts,
all the compliments,
all those feigned promises of a future
she remembers the lessons
they all endured
from a mother whose emotional violence
paired nicely with her brilliant,
power-stealing husband's physical violence;
we all learned:
how to hide our vulnerability,
how to swallow our emotions
how to compare, compete, control,
and come up smiling
how to mindlessly reproduce all that
aggressive, lethal stoicism
for the next generation
her life is now a tiny fresh new puddle
every piece of her whole world is in there
still, she let them wade in, swim around
they said they cared,
but they splashed mercilessly
they said they loved,
but they stomped thoughtlessly
stirring up sediment, making mud;
they said they tried, then they left
the mess for her
each time they disappear,
she settles her puddle
she calms and soothes herself;
she begins rebuilding her “i”
she untangles her legs from all the hopes
and all those imagined possibilities
that momentarily lifted her;
she cuts them free so her legs
might again generate
the sole forward momentum
for her new little life
she once believed she only deserved pain
that she’d earned it
in a lifetime of insensitivity;
she hurt herself to feel the punishment
her body had been taught was coming to her
she now knows that it was never true--
that punishment is necessary;
that mothers and fathers must hurt to love--
she knows now that pain is not love
she’s no longer the empty shell
her father's vision imposed
and her mother's disdain,
disconnect, and distance enforced
she’s now a full human being:
awkward, earnest, and hopeful
she’s learned to be kind to herself:
to respect her vulnerability
and her emotions;
she’s learned to protect and nurture,
not evaluate and analyze
like feelings are arguments
that have to “make sense”
it’s new, this post birth-family life:
she knows she’s exactly
who she’s supposed to be now
and she knows that
she can’t be who she is now
with anyone who knew her before:
her new self disrupts
their old roles,
breaks all the invisible frames,
making them uncomfortable;
so she leaves quietly,
outdated expectations of her
she won't live on her knees
in apology or supplication
she won’t argue for her earnestness
or justify her existence
she's not broken or four or fragile;
she's just different.
I sit in the middle of the mess, in a world far away from what I now understand to be my own. I’ve finally set it all down, what I’ve been observing and noting and saving and carrying for three life-changing years. The volumes of notes, the thousands of pictures, all the recorded voices speaking to me from places I could never have imagined before experiencing them, worlds I still struggle to hold. The dozens of documents, all containers for content, all being shaped to share. It sinks in, the strong sense of purpose that the lifetime of meaningful work in front of me represents.
The new skin on my right hand is hot and red this morning. The puncture wound mends, the one I accidentally inflicted on myself in a rage at my inability to do anything about the psychosis and obscenity of this ugly new world order. A broken glass candle holder and violent downward force stop—dead—my frustrated intellect’s drive to fix everything, to account for it all, to make any sense of any of it. To redeem itself for having been buried alive and useless when it all went down. In the moment of impact—of glass punching through skin and flesh–the pain and shock of what one part of me has done to another part of me suddenly illuminates, in sharp hard cold white light, a formidable intellect with a lethally overdeveloped sense of responsibility.
(Hey, want to radicalize a human being? Instill at a very early age an overwhelming sense of responsibility, the belief that if he doesn’t do his duty, the world will end as he knows it. Hang a cause around his neck that must be addressed, or his family and friends will perish. Then, isolate and ignore him. Knock him down and tie his hands behind his back. Watch him push himself up, over and over, trying to meet his obligation, only to be punched back down again by those with free hands. Watch his rage rise, righteously. Watch it ignite. Watch it burn.)
I feel my intellect creeping around my emotions this morning, sizing up my newly forming creative process, angling for advantage in its instinctive competitiveness. My intellect’s need to categorize, evaluate, judge—its innate push to convince, control—works in the background, making a hard structure it eagerly waits to clamp down on the soft new pink skin of my reforming self. It is my mother’s work, this attempted emotional imprisonment, this effort to show creativity who’s really boss, this aim to annihilate the soft and sensitive.
Over its lifetime, my intellect inflicted wounds–some surface, some deep–on humans it was fundamentally incapable of feeling. My emotions were in hiding; my vulnerability lost in a black hole. Only half of a human being was present. Many of the wounds my half-self inflicted on other humans never healed, and I lost all of those connections.
Now, surrounded by artifacts from the last three years on the outside of everything, I remember my little sister. I say her name out loud. To make her real in my world, so far from her world. I haven’t said her name in years, but a possibility I didn’t even know existed brought us together recently to try again. To build something new. To see each other with new eyes. To know each other, again. To love.
The deep burning itch in my right hand pulls me out of my daydreams. My hand’s new skin reminds me that even the deepest physical injuries can heal, even stupidly self-inflicted ones (the only kind I’ve ever caused).
The scar, though, will be permanent. It is also a reminder.
[Submitted to KQED’s “Perspectives”]
Everything I learned about power-sharing, I learned in San Francisco Bay Area college classrooms.
Growing up, I’d never seen or experienced power done in any other way than how I lived it in my family’s culture: with a father who was the sole authority, and who held and wielded all the power. Who chained the agency of his young children. My father, alone, decided that no one had the power to speak in our family but him. I tried challenging him, twice, and both left a mark.
But in college classrooms in the Bay, professors–humans who seemed like a whole different species to me–invited me to speak, to share the floor. To share their power. Teachers and other learners turned toward me, listened; they saw me. They responded with respect. In those Bay Area college classrooms, I existed for the first time in a world where I was allowed my full range of expression, without fear. It was like magic and it changed everything.
I learned how to do power differently. I learned: how access to accurate information shares power. I learned: how human acknowledgement shares power. I learned: how open processes share power, how listening shares power; how optimism, support, and encouragement share power.
I lived the health and well-being afforded those with the privilege to sit in those democratic classrooms.
Of course, academia isn’t some magic power-sharing place and magical power-sharing classrooms exist beyond the Bay. But, for this Bay Area learner who grew up in an authoritarian family culture, the power-sharing magic in those classrooms happened regularly for me.
I left the East Bay at the end of October 2016 for other worlds. I’m headed home there in November this year. It’s an old cliché, but there really is no place like…the San Francisco Bay Area.
She was a child
lost in the woods somewhere,
who kept running
behind a light,
hoping that it would take her home
It’s April 2017, and I’m beginning to dig out from under the 30-year storm damage that buried Bello, Sparkles, and me for months: the massive, drought-impacted, snow-covered tree that fell on our new house, putting a hole in the roof that wouldn’t be repaired for months because there was no one to fix it; the bounce that landed the tree on my new SUV, destroying the passenger side and putting a hole in the windshield that wouldn’t be repaired for more than a month because no tow truck company would come to Kerby; the grave I dug for Bello, my love, who was killed early on a Sunday morning on his way to find the duckpond across the icy two-lane highway; the blood pressure in stroke territory and the male nurse at the local health clinic screaming that I’ll probably get an embolism, that the clinic can’t be liable if I die, that I need to go; the eight months without an internet connection at home and none nearby that wasn’t in a place polluted with rebel flags in the parking lot and/or Fox News on the tube inside; the isolation. Like bootcamp for humbling life lessons.
I live a life where the very basics are often threatened—my health, shelter, and transportation; my heart, my mind, my identity, all up for grabs here. Living this way makes it nearly impossible to think or see beyond the most important thing that has to be done this day, a task that will hopefully keep some essential part of my life from just falling apart. (I magnet a note to my fridge: “Keep calm, take care of Sparkles, and take good notes.” That and “no problem, I’ll do it myself” become personal mantras.) I begin to understand that my privilege is not portable; the thousands in the bank, my education, my plans, and my intellect–my old sources of power–will not save me here.
I learn how to adapt. I’m hacking all the time: using what’s available as a tool for my purposes, even though my purposes may not be its. Stopping mid-task, mid-goal; assessing, seeing the direction won’t work, and taking a new approach. Constantly shifting everything in response always new, “no one is going to believe this,” wtf situations.
Daily, hearing, seeing, feeling their rejection of my existence–their (justified) hate for the Californian; experiencing the marginalization, the social isolation, but not holding it; noting it, letting it go, moving past it, and leaving it there. Losing my battle to hold onto my familiar sense of self, and, finally, letting her go.
Seeing the connection to all marginalization, to all those ignored humans; living with the pain and invisibility all outsiders feel, all us bottom-of-the-culture dwellers just trying to get through the day alive and sane. Whole.
Being solo, I open to all the ways the universe is trying to talk to me. I begin believing the universe has got my back, that events I keep calling “lucky” or “coincidences” are a pattern. I feel this first among the trees.
I begin trusting my emotions and imagination to direct me with their creation of possibilities that pull me forward, out of this toxic actuality.
I begin to see past the debilitating passive aggressive power projections fired at me by the scared white humans around me with a little power to protect.
I begin to see that the overwhelming pain I feel daily isn’t earned, not punishment for who I was in a previous life.
I begin to see that the human relational patterns are the work; that the relational dysfunction in which all of us are immersed here is the reason for the work.
I begin to live connections that merge with memories made in a smaller body: how the bottom makes the top possible and how the humans at the bottom can remake that relation, even if they’re little. How they can choose and resist; how they can break the bonds that chain their agency.
The power of purpose finds me. This purpose gives me gifts of seemingly endless energy and optimism, and the strength I need to keep believing and working when, literally, no one else can see what I’m trying to do.
And I begin to understand.
It all started with the “Humans of Cave Junction.” It was my first formal project to participate in the community. I would create an Instagram account (inspired by the NY original) and walk the streets of downtown CJ. I would meet people, share with them that I’m new in town and doing a little project to get to know the humans there. Ask if I might take a moment of their time for a couple of quick questions. Maybe connect with them. I’d make sure it was okay to take a picture, then let them know I’d share the stories and images online. It was a chance to create something beautiful and useful while getting to know this new community.
(You know that dream, the one where you’re in public, naked? That feeling? It stalked me all through the five weeks or so of the project. I’d been in Josephine County for months, living with and processing enough of the new experience to keep moving forward, even though the process was dissolving my sense of self, my identity. I had no position anyone could see, no role I wasn’t giving myself, nothing I wasn’t doing into being. While walking the streets of CJ, the breeze was wafting into some intimate places it’s never visited before in public.)
During those weeks, I met many of the humans without homes in CJ. At the park, behind the grocery store, on the streets, along the Redwood Highway. When I asked to talk, to take pictures, they all said yes. They all just gave me their time, their stories, their privacy. They gave me permission to use all of it, without a second thought. They gave me little pieces of themselves, without asking for anything in return.
I met humans in Southern Josephine County who are used to giving their power in exchange for resources to live, who often tie themselves into knots trying to show how “good” they are, how worthy of support. Authority in this culture has taught them that they are worth nothing unless they produce, unless they stand on their own two feet and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They have been taught that addiction is a personal failing, that mental illness is a weakness. Authority has taught them that this is how things have always been and that this how they ought to be. It also teaches them that nothing ever really changes.
They have been taught that if someone does something “nice” for them, they need to show gratitude, show respect to the person giving them something, sometimes by getting on their knees to say “thank you.” They have been taught that their “bad” position is a result of their badness, their own stupid actions and decisions. They have been taught that authority is the only “good” person here because it always makes the right moves, obviously. They have been taught to obey without questioning authority and to supplicate. There is no audible dissenting opinion from authority here. None.
I have never shared the “Humans of Cave Junction” pictures or recordings, never did populate that IG account. It’s never felt ethical, unless I can share the benefits with the humans whose gave up parts of themselves for a little warmth. (Sure, I met their expectations: I gave them things they needed, like gloves and blankets and hats because the only warming center in town had closed and it was about to get very cold.)
What the humans without homes in Cave Junction gave me was an actual understanding of the humans in the middle.
I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay area. I’m still a city girl, but whose home is also in the trees. I went away for a minute, into rural worlds. All the stereotypes I learned in the Bay about rural people were wrong. Every single one of them. Soon, I come back to the Bay with a point of view that I’m afraid most Bay Area peeps won’t be able to feel or even want to understand.
Before I left the Bay, I didn’t know that in the early 1970s, we annihilated rural cultures in the United States. Urban elites, academic elites, media elites. And all those urban, academic, and media soldiers, who followed the orders, whose obligations to debtors kept them locked down in positions that ate their time, their lives; jobs that absorbed any purpose they might have had when they started. The urban cultural elite army marched by necessity in lockstep with the capitalist drive to obliterate any trace of their poor, white “country cousins.”
We purged rural people’s popular representation. We dropped our universities right down in the middle of their backyards, pushing them to the margins. We used their facilities and their labor en route to somewhere else. We ignored our rural neighbors in favor of studying international rural cultures. We talked about them in the ugliest, smallest terms possible while we dined on the fruits of their labor. We reduced their cultures to the language of economics. Rural places in the U.S. were like the nation’s “junk closets”: we shoved in there what and who we didn’t want to see, didn’t want to deal with and quickly—with some force–closed the door. Then, we went about creating our urban world next to their rural ruins.
Nearly half the U.S. population did not exist in the other half’s world. We ghosted them. The ones we shut out, the ones we ignored, the ones we belittled–their best minds took control. They began to recreate: new worlds, new stories. Not in any big, considered, planned, organized fashion, but as best they could while living in the shambles of their ignored world.
The severing of the rural limb was not painless for those who called it home. The pain, the internalized shame, and the humiliation still sear. But, unable to show that pain, a deep, hot, throbbing untreated wound now underlies their lives. And those with more resources–and with the power to understand and use rural pain—exploit these humans for own their purposes.
I’ve learned a lifetime worth of lessons in a few short years. One of the most important isn’t rural or urban, it’s human: in order to be ethical change agents, we have to understand what we hope to change. Right now, the popular information about rural people–about rural cultures–offers nothing that could nurture the kind of change that matters: relational change between humans.
The point of view this city girl brings home, however, is different.