Experiments in being an advocate for diversity and inclusion: what keeping quiet for a while has taught me

In most of the spaces I inhabited in Northern California, I had the privilege of being surrounded by very well-trained advocates for racial, class, gender, and a number of other forms of diversity and inclusion. The workshops, classes, community, and work events I frequented were excellently facilitated by people adept at leading the group through the setting of shared agreements. Once we had collectively affirmed those agreements, the facilitators and participants could lovingly but firmly call out — or rather, call in — any behavior that breached those agreements.

Even in situations where there were no explicit agreements in place, such as social gatherings, there was always someone more hip than I was to such matters who was willing to say something when anyone’s bias showed. In the rare moments when I did find I wanted to raise my own voice, usually online, I had people who could help me adjust my language before posting anything, and back me up once my words were out there.

These scenarios felt very safe and very comfortable. I benefited from the work of others; I could fully show up because I knew that what I shared would usually be received and held respectfully by the facilitator or the group itself, or that at the very least, someone else would intervene if anyone failed to check their privilege or veered into prejudiced territory, consciously or otherwise. And I trusted that my own missteps would be skillfully reflected back to me, giving me the opportunity to raise my own levels of awareness.

***

All that changed when I moved to Auckland. Continue reading “Experiments in being an advocate for diversity and inclusion: what keeping quiet for a while has taught me”

More than one way to write a story

You may have seen Mandy Len Catron’s recent article, What You Lose When You Gain a Spouse. I share the author’s experience that many of the costs associated with marriage ring true for those of us who are partnered-and-co-habitating, if not actually married. 

But the part of the article that made me yell out loud in agreement was this sentence, a quote from psychologist Bella DePaulo:

 When the prevailing unquestioned narrative maintains that there is only one way to live a good and happy life, too many people end up miserable.

I believe we could replace “…live a good and happy life” with just about anything and it would still hold: when there is only one way to “raise a child,” or “save the world,” or “use gender pronouns,” too many people end up miserable.

I also believe we need to question the narrative that there is only one way to write a life story.

Six months ago I attended a long-weekend writing workshop to see if I wanted to sign up for the school’s longer program. The MFA-esque course in fiction and memoir writing would have required a significant shift in life priorities, and I was seriously considering it. I decided not to sign up for a number of reasons, including the fact that I found myself more than a little triggered by the main instructor’s assumptions that:

  • Being published would obviously be our primary — if not only — motivation for investing in such a program, and 
  • The only way to get published is to follow the very specific, tried-and-true story arc.

Now I’m not arguing that the Story Arc doesn’t work for that specific purpose, but I am Very Resistant to the idea that it is the ONLY way to tell a story. I know I know — you have to learn the rules before you can break them, etc. But some of us would rather not pay cash money for yet another experience of learning that we “have to” mold ourselves to someone else’s — or some entire tradition’s — definitions of how we should be in order to be “successful.”

(Related: except for one piece by Arundhati Roy, the authors of every single excerpt we studied, and every member of the longer program’s listed faculty, and every one of my fellow students, were white. I recently read a powerful account of a woman’s experience of racism during a writing class and am grateful that none of my fellow workshoppers behaved as unskillfully! Still, I am weary of wondering if I am the only one in the room who even notices details like those I listed above. And I wish it were possible for me to simply appreciate the curriculum, rather than also having to weigh the pros and cons of bringing up what — and whom — it leaves out.)

And so, rather than polish my craft under the watchful mentorship of professional writing teachers, I continue to write rambling, unpolished pieces for… myself. And you 🙂

***

Speaking of stories, I loved Tommy Orange’s There There. My friend Mike, the most prolific recommender of books I know, suggested I read it long before the New York Times listed it as one of their best books of 2018, but I didn’t get to the top of the waiting list for the library’s electronic copy until the end of December. Took me only two days to finish as I couldn’t put it down.

As a follow-up, Mike suggested Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries: A Memoir. “A much different book,” he said, “but crazy intense as well.”

Wow wow wow, so much REAL! 

And a very interesting structure. To be honest I can’t remember whether it follows THE Arc or not; there were so many other details that held my attention, including the author’s choice to name the names of those who had harmed her and her mother. 

Even before reading Heart Berries, I’d spent a fair bit of time lately thinking about:

  1. The ownership of stories (as in: what are the ethics of telling other people’s stories, even if they belong to the author as well?);
  2. The difference between what actually happened and what we remember, and how much / when that difference ultimately matters; and
  3. The many ways we (as individuals, families, institutions, a society in general) practice “healing” and “justice” in the aftermath of the various types of trauma we cause each other, sexual and otherwise.

There’s a lot to sift through and process. In the book and in our own lives, clearly.

The very next book I read was Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, also a memoir of sorts, which I discovered because a bunch of people on The Creative Independent (a collection of essays and interviews that Kickstarter publishes to support the emotional and practical needs of creative people) keep recommending it.

And now I would like to recommend it to you! Nelson’s writing in Bluets is beautiful, lyrical, and explicit in its exposition of the messy, nonlinear cycle of remembered joy –> nostalgia –> shattering grief –> –> coming back together again.

As I was reading Bluets I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between its structure / tone / the author’s approach to writing about vulnerability / relationships / heartache (etc) and Mailhot’s in Heart Berries. Because I like being right, I said to Scott, “she must have been inspired by Maggie Nelson,” though I knew full well he hadn’t read either book.

***

In an April newsletter from independent publisher Catapult, they announced their latest offering, Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, by Jane Alison. I look forward to reading its “deeply wacky pleasures,” as described in this New Yorker review.

In the meantime I can’t stop thinking about the excerpt quoted in the book’s description: 

For centuries there’s been one path through fiction we’re most likely to travel— one we’re actually told to follow—and that’s the dramatic arc: a situation arises, grows tense, reaches a peak, subsides . . . But something that swells and tautens until climax, then collapses? Bit masculosexual, no? So many other patterns run through nature, tracing other deep motions in life. Why not draw on them, too?

I thought about sending a copy to the writing program’s leader, who also happens to be an acquaintance of mine, but I suspect I’m only tempted to do so for ego-boosting reasons (Scott points out that this piece isn’t exactly a conversation starter).

Also, it’s sold out.

***

A few weeks ago, after the similarities had been gnawing at me for months, I resorted to Googling whether anyone else had, in internet-discoverable format, compared Mailhot’s style in Heart Berries to Maggie Nelson’s in Bluets.

What I found was so much more exciting than that: an entire Atlantic article in which Mailhot describes Bluets as a critically-important inspiration for her own work, and tangentially, her marriage. 

She goes on to critique “the established MFA aesthetic” (which she describes as “essentially white”):

I’m suspicious of when we try to compartmentalize the formula for success as an author, instead of just inviting the person to be as weird as they need to be to express something. Let them be the person they’re supposed to be, instead of trying to mold them into the aesthetic of this moment. It’s so difficult and important for teachers to try to bring that weirdness out.

Again, I’m tempted to substitute any other description of identity where the word “author” appears here. Why not challenge the compartmentalized formula for success as a woman, a man, a couple, an employee, or anything else for that matter?

I read these quotes as Calls to Action to become the teacher / friend / sister / daughter / partner / colleague that I want to be: the one who, by fully embracing both my weird and conventional qualities, contributes to the cycle of bringing out the unapologetically weird and conventional in others. And I offer an immense Thank You to those of you who have let your own evolving self shine forth, as this has helped me come to love and express my own.

Ghost Ship memories

Two years ago today, Scott and I had been in Auckland barely a month. We were still living in this weird residential apartment in the CBD (Central Business District), directly next door to the record store where Scott now works.

We came out of a movie and I checked my phone, as one does. Amanda, a close friend of Scott’s and one of only three people Scott and I had in common before we met, had just posted a photo of Johnny, another close friend of Scott’s; he’s also a music producer and DJ. Before we left San Francisco, Scott and Johnny had spent weeks hanging out together at Green Apple Books as Scott trained Johnny to take over the music side of things there.

nackt.png

As I switched over to my Facebook feed, I started to piece together what was happening that night in Oakland. In a bizarre and modern version of “real time,” we witnessed our other friends’ collective scramble as news of the Ghost Ship fire spread through an endless stream of Facebook comments.

Despite everyone’s efforts, there was no news about Amanda and Johnny until the next day. We eventually learned that they had both died in the fire that night, along with so many more.

Everyone had something to say in the days that followed. So many posts and articles and replies and clueless reporters and only a few that, at the time, I believed came close to appropriately capturing the complexity of what was going on (thank you so much Gabe Meline!).

Here is what I wrote a week after the fire, mostly for myself, as I struggled to process it all. Looking at these words now I am struck by my desire to do something despite a deep sense of helplessness. The relief / guilt. The felt sense of being oh-so-far away. How hard it is to comfort those who need comforting when our own holes feel so large. It still feels important to hold space open for Amanda and Johnny. For Scott and Shanna and Andy and everyone else who remains, and for everyone who loves anyone.

***

Oh shit fire at Ghost Ship
Nothing in the news
Maybe Twitter will have more info?
Oh jeez look at this video
We would have been there Continue reading “Ghost Ship memories”

The Well of Grief, a poem by David Whyte

Every time a crack appears in the dam that keeps my sea of grief at bay, I am reminded of this David Whyte poem:

The Well of Grief
David Whyte

Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief,

turning down through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe,

will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,

nor find in the darkness glimmering,

the small round coins,
thrown by those who wished for something else.

Source: David Whyte’s Facebook page, accessed 6 November 2020.

The audio of the video below* features David Whyte himself reciting the poem, and talking about how it came to be. The imagery is irrelevant, and I’d suggest ignoring:

I love hearing him tell the deeper story about the bottom of the well, and how he repeats certain lines, certain words, and then the entire poem in entirely different ways!

*That said, I have mixed feelings about sharing this video as it sets of an alarm related to “not taking that which is not given.” Continue reading “The Well of Grief, a poem by David Whyte”

I want to talk to someone about Wendell Berry

LoadingBrushI love Wendell Berry. I think I’ve read more of his books than any other author’s. I’ve had the honor of seeing him speak on three different occasions. When he came and spoke to a rapt crowd at a packed barn in my (then) small town, I was thrilled that he signed my post-it-note-laden, cover-is-delaminating, I-recommend-it-to-everyone-who-expresses-an-interest copy of The Art of the Commonplace. I have had nothing but massive respect for the man and (most of) what he stands for.

With that context in mind, it kills me to admit any crack in my admiration for Mr. Berry. Now that I’ve started examining that crack, however, I’m realizing that I’ve had a few misgivings all along. This has sparked a familiar sort of grief: the grief that comes from removing someone from a pedestal I had them on.

In the first essay in The Art of Loading Brush (Counterpoint, 2017), “The Thought of Limits in a Prodigal Age,” Mr. Berry repeatedly compares screen addiction to drug addiction, but worse “because it wears the aura of technological progress and social approval.” Continue reading “I want to talk to someone about Wendell Berry”

Self care and art as acts of resistance

It’s hard to deny that there’s a lot of shit going down in the world right now. As the daughter of two immigrants (into the US) and an immigrant (into NZ) myself, what’s happening at the US border hits me in a particular way, and there are so many other examples we might point to around the world.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to stay open to and present with this sort of unpleasantness, for a couple reasons. First, I believe it is important to actually SEE and GRIEVE these atrocities, rather than pretending they don’t exist or that they don’t hurt. And more importantly, I believe we must be present to what is going on if we might hope to effectively address any issues that are not in alignment with our own values.

And so I have been super inspired by a few things that my friends have shared this week. They remind me that there are so many ways to contribute to upending the status quo, and so many ways to take care of ourselves as we do that work. Continue reading “Self care and art as acts of resistance”

Trasitions and Transformations

I am infinitely grateful for the three years I spent on the staff of RSF Social Finance, a financial services organization that seeks to revolutionize how people relate to money. Leaving that job was one of the most difficult decision I ever made! But I was literally bursting with the book I was ready to write, so leave I did, shedding many tears in the months leading up to and following my departure.

While at RSF, I had the honor of leading the development of their Food System Transformation Fund (although it had a different name then, the Food & Agriculture PRI Fund I think?), a new loan fund supporting high-impact food businesses, funded by foundation investments. You can read more about the impulse behind that fund in Don Shaffer’s reflections on the eve of his departure after 10 years as the President and CEO of this truly unique and inspiring organization.

Whenever I’ve been called to help an organization or business or another human being launch something new, whether it’s a loan fund or a product line or an entire business, Continue reading “Trasitions and Transformations”

The personal is the political

My older brother died before I was born due to a heart condition that doctors can now successfully treat with advanced surgeries like the one Jimmy Kimmel describes here:

So, with tissues out and proverbial protest signs up, a few Thank Yous:

  • Thank You mom and dad for going through what must have been a horribly traumatic process and still deciding to have me and Adam;
  • Thank You scientific research for helping prevent similar grief; thank you US Congress for increasing, rather than decreasing funding for science despite the proposed budget (keep up the good work!);
  • Thank You Affordable Care Act for insuring me and everyone else who has pre-existing conditions when nobody else would; and finally,
  • Thank You everyone in countries where socialized health care exists for being a bit more compassionate and recognizing that most Americans did NOT vote for Trump before responding with something like “you voted him in, now deal with it” whenever someone expresses their grief about what is going on in the US right now.

Don’t rob yourself of the now: Timmy’s tribute to José as a balm for those who grieve

Linkedin_XG_700x400.jpg

My interview with climber, comedian, friend, and _____* Timmy O’Neill is now live on Xero Gravity, please check it out!

Timmy was a consistent presence during my Yosemite years, and he recently wrote a beautiful tribute to our late friend José, asking:

How do you bring someone long gone, back to life, and what are the physical and emotional artifacts that allow you to personify him?

I feel similarly trying to describe Timmy; *there are precious few words for describing those people who just vibrate at a higher level, even when they are still with us Continue reading “Don’t rob yourself of the now: Timmy’s tribute to José as a balm for those who grieve”

Chris van Leuven: my other “brother”

chris-vlChris van Leuven spent quite a bit of time at our house in high school, so much so that I often thought of him as the third sibling in the family. Things at his house weren’t going that well, we gathered, but neither my brother nor I asked many questions. Instead, we would bring him home after our afternoon sessions at the local boulders or climbing gym. We’d let his endless stream of words, spoken in such animated, rapid succession that anyone else would have struggled to comprehend, melt into our own stories from the day. Often, all three of us would be speaking at the same time, but that didn’t hinder our understanding.

In the Spring of 1996, I was just finishing my first year of college in Montreal while Chris was actually living our high school dream of dirtbagging in Yosemite Valley. Continue reading “Chris van Leuven: my other “brother””