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Saturday, May 2, 2015

What if the world is your oyster... and you don't even like oysters?

This post is in tribute to a theme that has arisen in my Very Favorite Virtual Place--my 'dorm' in Ravenclaw Tower, and forgive me as I ruminate through some Hard Work I did while taking Rev. Tamara Lebek's "Personal and Professional Power" class at Ferry Beach from July 5-11, 2014.

May 2, 2015: I just found this unpublished; I wrote it months ago.  It is time to publish it.

I sat on the big, stately dining hall porch in a comfy rocker, with my very first assigned conversation partner and contemplated power.

I remember feeling powerful as a child.  But I don't know when that feeling went away.

And I didn't know how to get it back.

I also can't remember, honestly, how long I've been carrying what I can only describe as a weight on my chest.  It has perceptible feeling--to me, anyway, though it's a ghost weight only I can feel, which no one could measure.  I can't remember it coming.  I can't remember how long it has been there.  I can't remember when I lived without it last--except I am sure I wasn't born with it.  I am also sure it has been growing in strength over recent years.

The blur of the week... talking about recognizing facial microexpressions (for an idea of what this means, watch the show Lie to Me) and cultural awareness of power, and definitions of power and more small-group conversations, and an experiential exercise... ended abruptly for me on Thursday afternoon when I, almost reluctantly, attended a session on Intercultural Conflict Style.  

It was at least the third inventory we'd taken that week, but it came with unusual instructions.

"Answer the questions," said Rev. Tamara, "as if there are no consequences."

We prevaricated.  She clarified.  "Answer them the way you would if there were no one else on earth but you."  We looked askance.  She clarified again, and then we just started in, trusting the process as we'd been attempting to do all week.

The scoring for this assessment is thus: you have 5 points.  You may break up the 5 points any way you want, assigning some to the first and some to the second of each pair of answers.   You may give all 5 to one and zero to the other, or 2-3, 3-2, 4-1, or 1-4.

My lightbulb went off and my earth shattered on question 2.

A: Maintain emotional calm & stability.
B: Allow my own emotions to come out when interating with the other party.

You can see the crossings-out on my paper as I switched from my first response: A:4, B:1 through weighting them 2, 3 and then finally, registering and taking to heart Rev. Tamara's instructions, going for the truth: A:1 B:4.

Because if there were no consequences, I would be a heck of a lot more emotional than I look.  

This is copyrighted material so of course I won't share more.  It costs about $15 to take this test and you can find out more at

When we read the results, my one, single, resounding, earth-shaking Aha! moment of the week came, picked me up, and left me shaking.

The test is scored on a 4-square grid.  The X axis is "Indirect-Direct" and the Y axis is "Emotional Restraint-Emotional Expressiveness."  The four quadrants are "Discussion" (High I-D and low R-E); "Accommodation" (Low I-D, Low R-E); "Dynamic" (Low I-D, High R-E) and Engagement (High I-D, High R-E).

We lined up according to our numbers for each axis for Indirect-Direct.  All of us had numbers between 23 and 45--Lower than 23 puts you into Quadrants 3 and 4--Accommodation and Dyamic, styles usually preferred in Latin America, Asia, and the Arab Middle East.  (And, please note, the test comes with a 16-page interpretation handbook, so what I'm doing here is dreadfully oversimplifying!).  Anyway, most white North Americans tend toward high Directness, and our group of 16 people was right in line (though not all were white).  

Then we did the Restraint/Expressiveness numbers.  

The group's numbers were much lower--we had people with numbers as low as 7.  And then there was a range of people between 7-20 with the number 23 being the center point.   But there were no 23s.  There was 20, standing on my right side.  And then there was me, number 28.  And to my left were 2 other people.  13 people in the room were in "Discussion."  I was in "Engagement."

And as we talked it hit me.  Throughout the week we'd been talking about what happens when a member of a cultural minority--a person who's Black or Hispanic, or gay or lesbian or transgender or bisexual or whatever--suppresses a significant part of themselves in order to get along at work (or in life).  Play it straight at work so I don't get fired... ignore cultural slurs and ignore my own values so I don't stand out so much...  Intellectually I understood this could happen--I've seen it happen, I've lived it a bit, even, as a member of a gay family in the 1980s.  Rev. Tamara likened it to cutting off your leg.

By forcing myself to live in Discussion when my soul is in Engagement, I've been cutting off my leg.  I know why I do it: I'm naturally loud; I have an animated face; I like to be silly and sad and angry and joyful and after the emotions pass I let them go.  But while I'm having them, people look at me like I have at least one extra head, and maybe horns.  So I've learned to contain myself.  Apparently the lid on the jar I use to contain myself is located right in the middle of my solar plexus, where that weight has been living.

I've been practicing opening the jar.  I don't want to go all OMG SILLY SAD ANGRY JOYFUL!!! on everyone all at once.  But I came to some seriously amazing realizations:

1) That One Person Who Pushes All My Buttons, who spends her time expressing herself loudly and not being heard MIGHT be living in Engagement.  Instead of protecting myself from her, I may be the person best qualified to meet her where she lives and help her get her needs met.  I've always feared that I will meet anger with anger and make the situation worse, and lose control of myself.  It turns out, that might actually be the best course of action.  

2) This isn't a blame game.  But I'm reasonably sure that at least some of this started when I had to learn to keep the Family Secret.  My mom coming out as a lesbian in 1983 was absolutely terrifying.  If my dad had found out, I'm very sure he would have made her life--and mine, and my brother's--a living hell.  And people were cruel about LGBT people, and I was already fairly vulnerable.  I came back in High School into a place where I had friends and some social standing (at least among the geeks and nerds who were my refuge, and who are still my people, thank goodness!) from my time in elementary school when I was close to the bottom of the pecking order, bullied and outcast by many of my classmates.  So telling my friends about my mom was out of the question.  And mom barely had the wherewithal to negotiate her own path down that rocky road; looking back I know I needed help finding my way to grace, sympathy, and acceptance, but I didn't know how to ask for that help, and I'm not sure mom would have known how to help me get there.

3) And in my Virtual Dorm, we've been contemplating class reunions and wish fulfillment and success just recently.  I'm a deeply different person from the teenager I was.  I, too, thought the World was my Oyster--that I would Work Hard and Achieve my Dreams.  I layered arrogance and cocksureness on top of myself to cover up a lot of hurt and insecurity. I thought highly of myself--at least, I'm very certain that most of the people in my life thought I did.  I really didn't.  I never have, not in the "I can do anything" kind of way.

And so I've changed. A lot of those dreams I held aren't dreams anymore.  I no longer believe that I can bulldoze my way through life.  I measure success differently from the way I did way back then.  I've fought the Black Dog of Depression more than once, and while it's never won, I can't always get it to lie down and heel, either.  I let the weight on my chest get heavier and heavier and tried more and more to fit myself into the Discussion mold... but no more.  I can restrain myself to keep from scaring people, but I'm no longer going to be embarrassed about being an emotional human being.  It's going to be a learning process, because I really am surrounded by hundreds of people who are all living in Discussion, and if I live in Engagement they will continue to look at me funny.

I'll tell you something, though: since last Thursday, the weight has been gone.  It came back a little on Monday night at a work meeting, so I know that work is a place that's going to be Hard, but I've rarely experienced something so thoroughly altering, in my whole life.

Is the world my oyster? If I go to my 30th reunion in 2015-16, I won't be thinking about whether I can impress my former classmates with all my accomplishments and successes.  I'm certainly not going to be the person everyone admires for maintaining her weight and clothing size after all this time.  But I think I still love some of the same people I loved then.  And I think there are some different  people I love more now than I did then, and some other people I loved then who, sadly, are no longer my people.  If I go, I'll go to have fun, not to impress anyone.  I'll go with love in my heart and a smile on my face.  I'll go, with grace, from the place where I live.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

One Human Race

I have to say it.

I don't have all the facts on Freddie Gray or what's happening in Baltimore.

Neither does anyone.

The old adage "There are two sides to every story" is false.  There are as many sides to every story as there are people in the story, which in this case is thousands.

I used to tell my preschoolers (who are universally into Bad Guys, by the way, it's totally a developmental thing) that I do not believe in Bad Guys.  No human being is inherently evil.  Their actions may be evil, but the thing in their hearts is--self preservation, self-defense... taking care of yourself in a world that maybe has provided no options.

I have done things I wish I hadn't done.  I have never set out to do a thing to hurt others.  But I have hurt people.  I am in the privileged place of having the time, resources, and energy to see when I've hurt others and try to fix it.  Usually.  I try my best.  So does every single human being I've ever met.

But people who have lived in godforsaken conditions, in fear and terror--may not have that luxury.  I believe strongly that our poor, tired, huddled masses have been kept that way because those who live in privilege are convinced that resources are limited--that if the poor had more, the rich would have less.  This has led to wildly uneven distribution of wealth, as wealthy people grab more and more wealth.  And--here's the kicker--they have the soon-to-be-former middle class convinced that we have to hold on to what's ours so that those lower class people don't get it.  In their fear, they have caused us to hate and fear those we should be caring for--so that they can grab more and more resources and go largely unnoticed.

I think our resources are only limited because we treat them as if they were.  If we all entered into a covenant of stewardship with the people and places of our planet; if those who have grabbed so much that they and their progeny couldn't spend it in a thousand generations would stop grasping and send those resources into the world, if we would care for our planet as a home we wish to preserve forever rather than as a reserve to be used up for our comfort in the now... I believe we would grow in wealth and materials rather than finding it all spent up.

Baltimore is an economic issue.  It is people with nothing finally being fed up with having nothing. Violence isn't the answer, but I understand in my heart why people who have been kept down through their whole lives by systemic oppression would finally snap.

I also understand how police officers, who enter into the force with every honorable intent of protecting and serving, can be lulled into comfort with a military response to peaceful protest, or to treating some folks among those they serve as less than human.  It is the exact same human condition that causes the looters and rioters to feel that they can loot and riot: they have a crowd behind them. If 99% of the police force said "this is not right" and treated all their constituents with respect, the one guy who tried to beat up a kid for shoplifting would be quickly and publicly removed from duty.  If 99% of the people on the streets said, "No, we will not burn and loot," then the one woman who broke a window would be quickly and firmly restrained.

This same crowd mentality is what caused the stupid "Pumpkin Riot" up in Keene NH last year, when a bunch of drunken frat boys decided that it would be fun to turn over cars and throw stuff and punch people in the streets.  They didn't even have anything to be angry about, but they had a crowd. Having a crowd fuels bullies.  In the case of Baltimore we have two crowds--one which bullies systematically and the other which was driven to fighting back.

Not one single one of those people believes they are evil.  They all, every one, believe they are acting rightly.  And: they are all right.  They are all acting in a way that the system has told them is correct, or at least justified in the moment.  They are all human-merely-beings: fallible and vulnerable.

Pointing fingers at one 'side' is not the answer.  Calling people 'animals' or 'thugs' is not the answer. Making sweeping statements about police forces is not the answer either.

Treating people with respect and dignity is the answer.

Living together without looking over our shoulders at Those People, wondering if they are trying to take our toys, is the answer.

Recognizing where we have and others have not, and doing something about it is the answer.

Recognizing when we have power and others have none, and making every effort to equalize power, is the answer.

It will take strength and fortitude and humbleness and we must strip ourselves of moral outrage and any illusion that there is 'us' and 'them.'  There is only us.  There is one human race, and we are all in it, and either we all win the race together, or surely we will all die.