Shots fired: When Hater Harriet packaged fear as a moral value (and I threw up in my mouth a little)…

After my daughter’s school PTO hyped up their fundraiser at Chick-Fil-A (thanks, but no thanks), I stumbled upon this gem of WTF on the Facebook:

I cut out the author’s name because I don’t want them harassed, but if that’s a problem (if they want credit for these brilliant thoughts I don’t want to get in the way) I will share as needed. For purposes of my own entertainment, I shall refer to them as “Hater Harriet.”

I did, actually, throw up in my mouth while reading Harriett’s post and had to go spit in the trash can, but I’m thinking that had more to do with the deep-fried jalapeño and less with the rampant ignorance. I’d like to think ignorance could cause me to instantly vomit. The thought makes me giggle, but I expect that in reality that would be pretty smelly, gross and painful. If it were not all of those things (not to mention a health disaster to frequently vomit) then puking on bigotry could make for a fun Saturday night. Just sayin.

And so, I had to respond.Continue reading “Shots fired: When Hater Harriet packaged fear as a moral value (and I threw up in my mouth a little)…”

Elections lost and PTO fundraisers, deplorable.

I remember groaning back in 2016 and being so mad at Hillary Clinton. I could not believe she said “deplorable.” Could. Not. Believe. It. I was aghast that she thought that thought needed to come out of her mouth. Hearts and minds are important and, believe it or not, when you label and insult folks you won’t get them to switch sides. I needed her to save us from the unthinkable possibility of the madness that has since become our government’s reality.

That said, cultivating hatred and further marginalizing marginalized people is deplorable. HRC, I was with you. Thankfully, I have no plans to run for office and can be freer with my word choices than I hoped you’d be. It is undoubtedly deplorable, but you needed Americans to buy in and with that word you drove a wedge between yourself and the poor white man on the fence. A man who might be a good man but isn’t sure he’s not being displaced by women. A man that feels confused and threatened by the word Privilege. A man that started insecure.

Insecure people and/or ignorant people, threatened by progress, can adapt when they are treated with kindness and given nurturing education. I say this with openness and vulnerability, knowing that there have been times when I was ignorant of my own privilege. There have been times when in my ignorance or defensiveness I hurt others and I was fortunate that smart, compassionate people could help me learn. I am glad that they didn’t call me deplorable and write me off.

It doesn’t always prove true, but I generally believe that people are generally good. I have to. I believe in our collective good and in our collective imperfection. It is the only hope for our divided country to tap into our collective good even when it is difficult to see.

That being said, I cannot support policies or companies that promote discrimination.

This is why I cannot volunteer for our PTO Chic-Fil-A fundraiser. My kids openly talk about gender roles and how they see their sexuality at the dinner table. (When kids discuss their crushes they are talking to you about sexual development. Pat yourself on the back of they do this.) I consider this a HUGE success that they trust me enough to talk about it. It’s a success that they feel safe enough at home to explore who they are. I can’t let (unfortunately delicious) waffle fries and nuggets get in the way of that.

PTO, I’m sad that you are asking us to. Is it important to fundraise? Absolutely, but I’d hope we would choose our partners with consideration for the message those partnerships send our children. Supporting any business that has given money to organizations that lobby against gay marriage and for conversion therapy sends a message to our kids about what their community is willing to accept. It is with an extremely heavy heart that I consider Chick-Fil-A’s impact on LGBTQ children and their families. So, I cannot support the PTO fundraiser because what might hurt my children hurts me. That’s what being a parent is. It is standing up for your kids’ wellbeing. To knowingly do otherwise is deplorable.

Welcome to my house: How I met the world from the comfort of my home.

We had moved for my graduate program. My family: irreverent, wickedly humorous, sci-fi/fantasy loving, non-religious, diversity-welcoming goofballs that we are found our selves in the South. My husband and I had grown up in the south of Virginia and Maryland, but not this kind of South. This was the openly racial-slur dropping, homophobic, gun-loving South that my husband experienced daily in his work at the firearms store. This was the “love the sinner but hate the sin,” and “I’m appealing to you not just as your boss, but as a Christian,” South that I experienced in my work at non-profits.

While on the one hand, I am glad for open discourse and I want people to be able to say whatever points of view they have (it helps to gauge your safety when people tell you just how unsafe they are), it was alienating to frequently hear opinions stated as fact that were so completely out of line with what we held, and thought of, as normal values: love people, embrace diversity, seek stories for greater understanding, be kind.

Before graduate school my friend Anne Jonas had sent me an invitation to join CouchSurfing.org. Anne and I had interned together at Virginia Organizing during our undergraduate programs, working on the living wage campaign. Couchsurfing was an early manifestation of the online gift economy. The idea, which I maintain is a brilliant one, was for people to open their homes to “surfers” from around the globe which would create opportunities for low cost travel and cultural exchange. Safety was addressed by a system of reviews that both surfers and hosts left for each other.

After graduate school, we had a second baby and bought a house and my husband and I were both working, he at the gun store and I in non-profits. I am sure that it was after one particularly prejudice-masked-as-values seeped workday that I came home and said, “I have got to either move or meet people from other places.” To my surprise Chris, who is much less trusting and more security-minded than I, said okay. We began using Couchsurfing.

Couchsurfing rocked my world. It seems so straightforward that it almost shouldn’t have been an epiphany, but it was: Doing something I loved that I felt no obligation to do instantly improved my mood and quality of life. I loved hosting. Among my favorite memories: Sharing the first Thanksgiving bird I’d ever cooked with a couple from Iceland and Canada, learning to make risotto with cheese smuggled into the country in the pocket of my new friend from Italy, American beers and barbecue with two French girls who were hitchhiking the United States and understanding them better through limited shared language and thick accents as the evening progressed, staying up late into the evening with @nikki_often who I would go on to stay in touch with and become one of my close friends. As I’ve begun thinking on favorite memories, my brain is flooded with them. There are too many to mention and I am grateful for every one.

When we moved back to Virginia we moved in with my parents and stopped hosting Couchsurfers because we didn’t have space of our own to do it in, but I knew that hosting had changed my life for the better. When I was scrolling through Indeed.com I happened upon a job listing for Cultural Homestay International to grow an exchange student program and jumped at the opportunity. While I wasn’t in a position to host, coordinating the program would be an opportunity for me to share my love of cultural exchange with others.

As I write this, I have now been the American mom to two teenagers and gotten to know over 40 exchange students from around the globe who I supported through the program. My kids are Matús from Slovakia and Victoria from Spain. Like Couchsurfing, hosting these two very different but intensely awesome teens rocked my world. Last summer I spent a few days in Madrid, visiting my Spanish daughter and her family, experiencing her country and culture. This coming summer my Slovakian son has been offered a job at a summer camp near us. These are relationships that have expanded my view of the world and that are lifelong.

Let me sum up (in the words of one of my favorite fictional Spaniards), Cultural exchange has profoundly changed my life. Both experiences, as a member of Couchsurfing and as a host parent and exchange student coordinator, have been invaluable. There are differences between the two. Couchsurfing, while it doesn’t discriminate, feels more geared toward the young adult set. The security it offers through the system of peer reviews relies on individual community members’ willingness to be honest about their negative experiences. It is generally short term, from a night to a week, and surfers are adults who are responsible for themselves. Hosting exchange students means gaining a family member. It is a longer commitment than hosting a short-term guest and there is always adjusting that needs to happen. The impact an exchange student has reaches beyond the home. Introducing cultural diversity improves the larger community, and creates opportunities for everyone the student encounters to learn a little more about the world.

I never thought of myself as a volunteer, though both sorts of hosting are volunteering. In a world where I was struggling with needing to be exposed to other ideas and new perspectives, hosting is how I, as a young mom with impediments that prevented me from traveling the world, brought the world to me.

When the world didn’t pause for my lack of discipline

I don’t really feel like writing, but that’s why it’s important now to make the effort. Today was full of half-formed ideas, articles I read, comments that resonated with me. Yet I’d much rather just not. I’d rather eat nachos and watch Netflix. Not that I have nachos. I’d settle for laying on the couch in front of where Netflix might be playing and pulling a blanket over my face.

I’ve got to learn to do it anyway of my own volition.

One of the resonating articles was in Forbes. It proposed that self-care is not about indulgence so much as it is about healthy self-discipline. A little later I read an Instagram post of one of my cousins about quitting drinking and I was reminded as I was about to sink into my Netflix & blanket cocoon that disciplined practices, which I generally lack in my personal life, are essential to good self care. I know that I need to eat real food, exercise, make art and write. I know that these aren’t optional unless I also consider self-actualization optional. In other words, it’s cool if I’m also cool being less of me.

I do think blanket cocoons have their place, as do mani/pedis and other indulgences. However, if nachos, Netflix and couch permeates my days more days than not which, except for the variance of whether there are nachos, is fairly reliable then it suggests that priorities are more aligned with binge-worthy TV and less with actual self-care.

So here’s my effort discipline in action. I commit to myself to write more days than not. Whether or not it’s nicely packaged. Whether or not I’m itching to do it. I commit to do the shit I don’t really feel like before I lose the discipline completely and instead watched six episodes of Russian Doll.

“Please go away,” an inadequate response to gentrification coffee-drinkers

She handed me two dollars across the counter, smiled, pulling her lips back across her  perfect teeth, and asked me if I was from here. I raised my eyebrows. “I’m from the next county to the south, but there are no jobs there. You?” She was from Long Island, but my asking wasn’t necessary. Everyone was either regulars or from New York or D.C. She commented on how pretty it was, quaint, but with culture, and the mountains so nearby. She was thinking about relocating. “If you could not do that, that would be great.” I smiled back nonchalantly.

Her eyes widened. How dare I? She could complain, but she wouldn’t. I didn’t matter that much, coffee-serving peon that I was.

It’s not a specific memory. It’s a collateral memory. Over and over again. Coffee. Smiles. Leave. Please leave. Visit. Get coffee. Just don’t stay.

This is not a post about how to best serve your customer base or keep business. Higher Grounds probably should have fired me. I was intentionally rude to customers about 5% of the time. There are staff who are just rough around the edges, who need support to be their best, and there was me. “Please go away.”

That was 2001. USA Today had named Charlottesville, “Best Place to Live in the USA.” I was nineteen, living in my car, showering at friends’ houses and serving coffee and as horrible as I was at customer service, I had a basic understanding of market demand. If people across the country believed Charlottesville was a great place to live the housing market would be flooded by demand and affordable housing, which might be needed by young people trying to move out of their cars (for example) would become scarce if not impossible to find.

And that transpired.

I moved away, went to college, eventually returned, my situation considerably different. I no longer live in my car. Nor am I intentionally rude to anyone. However, when I reflect on what is sometimes called the affordable housing crisis, I think of standing at the coffee counter and the many women from elsewhere with perfect teeth.

 

Outside of cages, the other side of righteous anger

Anger is:

  1. A natural response to injustice
  2. A transitory stage of grief
  3. Sometimes safer than sadness or vulnerability
  4. Considered a secondary emotion
  5. All of the above

I find that when “all of the above” is offered on a multiple choice it is usually a safe bet. In fact, William Poundstone asserts in “Rock Paper Scissors: A Practical Guide to OutGuessing and OutWitting Almost Everybody” that when you don’t know choosing either “all of the above” or “none of the above” is 90% better chance than your other options. But test development, human bias, and strategy are not what I’m writing about. So I digress. Back to what might be the most prevalent emotion on the internet.

I was at work recently when a rumination on anger bubbled into my consciousness, connected to a memory from previous work. I currently work as a hospice social worker. Sometimes one human issue reminds me of another human issue. It is not uncommon for anger to come up in hospice. It is, after all, one of the faces of grief.

A memory surfaced about working at The Nurturing Center in 2008, a treatment center for families of children ages 0-5 at risk or with a history of abuse or neglect. It was a mix of involuntary and voluntary clients. Many of the mommas and poppas I worked with had themselves experienced childhood trauma and been in a series of unhealthy adult relationships. I remembered being perplexed by a case in which one of my mommas was reflecting on how her trauma history shaped her and I was stumped by her absence of anger.

In supervision, I shared this with my supervisor Cindy Nord and my therapist colleagues. I had intellectualized theories on why anger was important. It is, after all, one of the stages of grief. It’s possible that I wasn’t quite ready for her response. She listened to my description of the client’s story, my response to my client and she smiled at me and told me that I didn’t need to answer her next question in the moment and asked, “Why did you need her to be angry?” I’m sure, as I had trained myself to do each time she threatened to annihilate a paradigm I held dear, I responded, “I’ll have to think about that.”

Why did I need this momma to be angry? I suspected that she could not possibly not be angry and that continued suppression of anger would inhibit her ability to heal. Catharsis supported this presumption. Cindy’s feedback (holy smokes did I get good feedback there when I wasn’t busy being angry) was that by my needing her to be in a different emotional place than she was, I was inhibiting my own ability to join with her where she was and support her in her process.

I had my own anger in response to the issue of child abuse. The topic doesn’t illicit warm fuzzies. Child abuse is unacceptable and it should make us (the collective us) angry. Anger in response to injustice is righteous anger. However, my vendetta against child abuse wasn’t going to help the momma I was working with. I had to learn to be present with her in her process at whatever point that might be. Being present demanded I not bring my own agenda into our session.

Outside the therapy session, I needed to do something with my righteous anger. In this way, anger can be a gift. It can drive change. I think of our country and the atrocities we have committed against humans. I think of the Tuskegee experiments, of Charlottesville’s August 12, 2017, of why the women of congress were dressed in white during yesterday’s presidential address. In so many contexts, anger is due and it calls for us to DO something.

Anger is often considered a secondary emotion. Ah yes, returning to our quiz question. This is worth a mention though. There’s a lovely little graphic you can find by searching the internet for “anger secondary emotion.” It’s of an iceberg. The graphic, and associated interventions geared towards anger-management asserts that underneath anger is another feeling. It may be sadness, fear, or powerlessness to name a few. It could be that my anger about child abuse was rooted in my sadness about child abuse. When sadness manifests as anger it can be empowering, creating a catalyst for action.

It can also swallow us whole.

In 2008 the economy was in the shitter. I accepted my first job at The Nurturing Center in Columbia, South Carolina out of graduate school at the bare minimum salary that I could afford because I wanted to do the work. Two months later everyone in our organization took a 10% pay cut. That same month President Bush signed the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, bailing out corporate banks. The contrast between how America took care of people vs. how American took care of corporations was stark. In the context of the times I felt helpless, angry, and disempowered. Righteous anger without empowerment morphed into despair.

Times have changed, but there are many paralells that can be drawn between those times and our current state of affairs. In September of 2017, which still feels current more than a year later, I went out dancing, which happens with a frequency of nearly never. Less than a month before that night, a self-proclaimed “white nationalist” drove a car into a crowd of people killing Heather Heyer within three blocks of the club I was at. When a friend who I see nearly never asked how I was doing I responded that I was often distracted  by being so angry and dumbfounded by our sociopolitical climate that it made questions like, “How are you?” difficult to answer. Sometimes I get really awkward really fast. When I returned to my car from dancing I jotted the following into my phone’s notes:

There’s a balled up sock

Wrinkled from being pulled

From a tiny foot

Resting on my dashboard

 

She said

“Anger is the background noise

Now for everyone…”

And gave me permission

To laugh and feel

 

The bass pounded like

It had a thousand times before

Where I spun in circles

And felt the intention in my hips

My feet leading my legs

Into the universe

 

I arrive back to my car

Away from the noise.

The comrades. The laughter.

To the place that I drive home.

 

And tiptoe in

As not to wake the tiny feet.

Sometimes anger is a community’s anger and trauma is a community’s trauma. What my friend did, that made me feel that I needed to write about it upon returning to my car, was to normalize the way that I had internalized that anger and to put it in it’s place, creating room for the other pieces of my experience to come into focus.

Anger has it’s place and can be a force for good. It is also a natural response to injustice and a transitory stage of grief. Often it is the surface for a deeper, more painful, feeling and in it we may find safety from the underlying pain. Purpose can be derived from it, but it can also take on a life of it’s own and consume us or, misplaced, obliterate progress and sabotage alliances. It’s a shifty beastie. It is this multifaceted nature that fascinates me, but sometimes I move too quickly to it as a secondary emotion. Sometimes, as was the case with the momma I got to work with in 2008, there are lessons to be learned from the underlying emotion and it’s okay, if not necessary, to sit with pain.

Exercising intention through Easter Eggs

When all the boys came to the yard, lured in by anticipation of milkshakes, they knew about Easter Eggs. They expected something good might happen.

For those that have forgotten, or just didn’t have context for the expression, an Easter Egg is a delightful little surprise. Programmers often tuck them into video games. Rather than thinking or researching, I took the lazy-(wo)man’s way and asked my husband to think of one. He laughed, and responded, “In Grand Theft Auto 5 there’s a tower that is a beast to scale and when you get to the top it says, ‘There’s nothing to see here.” It’s the random thing that you didn’t know you would find that brings a smile to your face. It’s a happy accident that you stumble upon them, but it’s no accident that they are there.

Enter the painted rock. You might find them unexpectedly laying amongst the landscaping stones of the children’s hospital, nestled among the plantings at the park, or just resting on a window ledge at the grocery store. Little gifts in the path, intentionally placed there for whoever might find them. Possibly originating with Megan Murphy of Conneticut’s Kindness Rocks project, http://www.thekindnessrocksproject.com, in recent years the painted-rock trend has moved Easter Eggs from the realm of video games and into physical public spaces.

My daughter and exchange student sister Lucia are both painting rocks at my kitchen counter as I write this and my son says, “I don’t see the point. Why would you spend time painting just to leave it for a stranger?” Sometimes the question is the answer. You would paint it to leave it for a stranger, because to everyone who hasn’t met us yet we are all strangers. We need to be reminded that the world is filled with possibility. Acting with intention we can leave a little goodness in the path of whoever might find it.

Leaving “bitch” behind

How many women’s relationship with the word “bitch” is a complicated one? I’d love to have a show of hands.

The complexity of my relationship starts in adolescence, “Hey, bitches!” just as easily spilling out of my lips as, “Hey, girl!” Hugs, makeup, loud music, illicit parties, shoes to match the car (really). At times vapidly uttered, seemingly meaningless.

Did it start as a friendly and daring word between friends or as spat out of boys’ lips? “Don’t be such a bitch.”

These are woven together into invisible protective armor, the armor of bitches. Bitches who have been demoralized, who use sex as a weapon, who have decided that of all the things that they have left to give, caring or fucks are no longer in that inventory. Indeed, she has no more fucks to give.

“Bitch” is about power. When I called my girlfriends my bitches we acknowledged the power in each other. When men called us bitches they expressed anger at that power. When I used and discarded people it was always about power and I felt comfortable in that power and identified, however thoughtlessly, with it and with the word I felt described me.

As good as the armor felt, and it did feel good, the outcome of choosing not to care for or about others’ feelings sucks. It sucks a lot at the end of the day. Or, let’s be honest, at the end of those years. The outcome of treating people badly, even if they allowed it, results in regret and preordained loss. That’s what folks in the parenting expert camp would call “natural consequences.”

It makes a lot of sense that in the context of an unsafe world that doesn’t give a fuck about them, girls would respond by being unsafe themselves and, in turn, declaring that they too don’t give a fuck. Recklessly hurting others because you can feels like power. And, it is. It’s a shitty, horrible power but it is power nonetheless.

The problem herein is that it’s a power born out of defensiveness. Perhaps it’s a necessary power in a world where women have been cast in the role of victims. If you’re predestined to be a victim, it seems you might have to have some defenses and if “bitch” were just a shield, if it just allowed girls to feel powerful in an otherwise hostile culture, we could continue to be bitches, my lady-friends and I. However, “bitch” continues to perpetuate a hostile culture, a culture where girls eat victimhood to become ferocious survivors, but those survivors are still shaped by ever-present danger. You are what you eat is a cliche that holds true.

When I started thinking about this I thought maybe (because I’m feeling old in my mid-thirties) this is no longer culturally relevant. In the above featured picture, I am a disinterested 23 year old. Maybe this is a remnant of the 1990s. Maybe girls have given up being “bitches”. Surely in the last decade we’ve moved the needle. Then I turn on the TV and my progress fantasy is quickly deflated.

Where do we go from here? Could it be that we start with putting new energy into creating safety and acknowledging girls’ power? Can we give girls the space to be true to them selves? Do we need to keep raising hell for progress? I am encouraged by the many calls for action and calling out in current events, but we continue to have a long way to go. Whatever is needed, I hope that you will commit with me to make changes so that our daughters will stand confident, so that bitch is not a necessary weapon.

Is Vulnerability weakness or superpower?

What’s your superpower?

I’ve got two kids. My daughter is a force of nature, a bundle of fearless energy. She has never met a stranger and would throw caution to the wind, but never had any caution to begin with. Her willingness to be all in all the time is her superpower. My son is completely different. He is incredibly detail-oriented, wants to do whatever he is doing perfectly every-time, and is beautifully sensitive and empathetic. That deep tuned-inedness is his superpower. Their superpowers are incredible strengths, but the flip side to their superpower (like those of comic-book heros and villains) is that powers are neither good nor evil, but can serve either purpose.

If you asked my friends what my superpower is, they would probably tell you that I “tell it like it is,” or that I can be a ferocious beast-mode bitch/badass hybrid. Which I get. In my late teens and early twenties I punched people to finish arguments. It made an impression and while I’ve got some deep sentimental and feminist attachments to being thought of as a bitch, which lingers, it’s not the power I want to cultivate.

What I want to cultivate is vulnerability. Vulnerability insists I bring all of myself to the table. Vulnerability requires confidence and resists fear. It is sometimes confused with weakness or naivety and at times, when I will myself to be vulnerable, it is difficult to resist the urge to chastise myself as stupid. But it isn’t naive to choose not to be guarded. It isn’t stupid to represent the truth as you know it. It does risk offending others and in unsafe environments being vulnerable may be unsafe.

If I put all these thoughts in a pan and boiled it down, it’s reduced to this: our organizations, families, companies, communities should not be unsafe. Choosing vulnerability, knowing that we should expect safety, takes a stand against letting fear define us. I look for, and follow, leaders that are powerful by virtue of their willingness to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is a litmus test to the quality of the culture. It is also a superpower that sparks that same power in others. When people are powerless they lose the capacity to allow themselves to be vulnerable. If this is the case, does practicing vulnerability then not also exercise power?

I think so, and hope to master this superpower. Even more so, I hope it is one we can all embrace.

 

Let’s do this.

I’m Helen.  I’ve been meaning to getting around to this. Blogging.

My blog is for myself in a number of ways. It is my hope that stating my goals in a public space will help me keep myself accountable. Thanks for helping, internet. 😉

As I write, “To state my goals…” I feel a wince in my brain and my inner child/baboon on a bicycle shrieks “Stop it! That’s painful! Goals?!? Really?! This is the internet, lady! Where are your farting kittens?” I sometimes struggle with adulting.

Back to it. Goals. What am I up to, other than ball-gagging that damned baboon?

I’m an administrator at the state level of an exchange student program.  I’m charged with growing the program in Virginia and need a place to document the story of this project. It makes a lot of sense that I’ve taken on this project as it fits snugly into the values of the quasi-adult idealist who shares my brain with a baby baboon.

I’m also a professional social worker in an emergency department. I need to write about how I think about trauma and all the other fun trauma-related stuff that influences how I do my work. Clearly, that part of my thinking is about as “for-everyone” as the Tetsuo movies. Maybe you don’t want to read it. Maybe you do. Either way, I need to start writing down my thoughts on issues and how my work with those issues is influenced by my experiences.

Lastly: To do what I need to do I must take care of myself (This is big. It’s food, relationships, art, friends). That piece must be in place.

That’s it.

Finally to give credit where credit is due: my 9 year old son, David, named my blog. This evening I said to him, “I need a name for a blog for my exchange student program, social worky, life stuff.” He responded, like it was obvious, “Life in exchange?” Which is awesome. AWESOME because it means something different in each of those contexts and is way more simple that the wordy over-the-top garbage I kept coming up with and hating. Thanks kiddo, you rock.

WIN_20150810_130741

Now let’s get started.