Friday, June 23, 2017

On Being an Empath Amidst the VONA Magic

This is Essay #25 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished, totally messy!) essay each week during 2017.



VONA Faculty & Diem Jones, executive director of VONA


It’s hard being an empath. No matter how much I try to protect myself, there is only so much I can do. Maybe there is more to learn about protective measures that I don’t yet know. But that didn’t help me last night.

Yesterday, I drove down to Philly to attend the VONA faculty reading at UPenn. VONA’s my writing family, but I haven’t seen anyone in real life in years. I was looking forward to it.

About fifteen minutes before the event was supposed to start, lots of people began to fill Bodeck Lounge in Houston Hall. There was a mix of participants from this week’s workshops and local alumni and the general public. By the time the reading kicked off, it was a full house. I started to feel... I don't know... my fingers have paused over the keys while my mind files through possible adjectives: nuts, crazy, uncomfortable, restless, but none fit the bill—Let’s put it this way: my body’s vibration shot through the roof. It was so high that I had to leave the room. I couldn’t figure out if this was good energy or not. All I know is that it was overwhelming.

I found a corner of Houston Hall where no one could see me, sat down in an armchair cross-legged, and tried to breathe. I rubbed my palms on my knees, trying to calm down. On the inside, I was freaking out. What was this? Where was this coming from? Whose energy was this? Was it coming from everyone? All at once?

I started breath of fire. It was all I could do to try to get myself grounded. I started crying. (Ego says: WTF? Soul says: the body knows what she needs to do.) I didn’t want to move from that spot. I didn’t want to go back in.

After about 3 minutes of breath of fire, I switched to long slow deep breaths. That seemed to work. I calmed down and went back in. But then, as soon as I sat down, it started up again. My vibration was so high I could feel the potential for levitation. (I’m serious) I imagined myself a balloon: I’d just float on out of there. I still couldn’t figure out if this was good energy or not, but I didn’t have a choice. The reading was starting. I had to (try to) sit still. I took measured breaths and said a prayer (“please help me keep it together”).

Eventually, my body calmed down. And I could listen.

And man, what I heard was amazing. Devastating. Phenomenal.

I’m not exaggerating. I think I cried the entire time.

Reyna & Faith read stories about their fathers and the relationships with them. To which I asked myself: what’s my father story? (A question to be explored at a later date.) Kim gave a great monologue from one of her plays. Marjorie kicked ass with her excerpt from her novel about mother and daughter covered in demon tattoos (I read The Iron Hunt & loved it! Women who kick ass. Literally.). David read a couple of poems, one in which he describes the heartbreak of his son’s friend’s murder (the friend was Somali). To which I say to myself, through tears: it’s so fucking hard to parent in this day and age; what it must be like to be David, trying to help his son get through this; what it must be like to be his dead friend’s mother – to lose your child so suddenly, so brutally. Danez read a poem about the things he wanted to say, but can’t –for many reasons listed in the poem. In which I considered, through more tears, silence. I considered the things we say without saying it, what is said in those silences, what it means to say something aloud or on paper – to manifest it outside of our bodies, what it means to not say them.

And then Patricia. Damn. Patricia “tear your heart out” Smith. She read –well, rather, performed a poem (with a few of her workshop students) about Diana Reynolds, the four–year-old daughter of Diamond, who was in the backseat of the car when Philando was shot and killed. The poem took turns between what a four-year-old perceives to be death as illustrated by cartoons (“they always come back”) and the sudden push into adulthood by her witness to the murder of her mother’s boyfriend. I imagined my kids when they were four and the tears fell free. I am still reeling from that poem. I have goosebumps as I type this.

I am of two minds after this event:

1. Poetry matters. Literature matters. Heck, writing fucking matters. It reminds us of who we are, what we are: living, breathing, feeling human beings. Terrible and beautiful, heartbreaking fuck-ups. (Don’t get me wrong: I’m not all kumbaya – there are muthafucking shitheads out there, for sure. The work is in how to see their humanity when they don’t recognize, when they don’t see ours. There’s a line in Danez’s poem that stayed with me – and I’m paraphrasing: I believe in nonviolence a little less every day. Lord, I hear that.)

2. I want to quit being a poet. Because what would be the point? (Yes, yes. See Number 1, you idiot. But what would be the point since there are people doing it better than me? I know, I know: what kind of fucking talk is that? Everyone has their own path, their own pace, their own story to tell. Yeah, yeah. Trust me – I have conversations about this with myself all the fucking time.)

So where does all of this leave me right now?

I don’t know. I’m still thinking about four-year-old Diana Reynolds. I’m thinking about all the shit I see online. I just saw police drag protesters OUT OF THEIR FUCKING WHEELCHAIRS to remove them from the building. I just saw a video of a black woman in tears, telling us how scared she was after just having been pulled over by police (Fortunately, she said, he was a nice officer and genuinely wanted to make sure she was okay, but her point of the video was that it wasn’t okay she was that terrified).

And I’m taking it all in. And it’s breaking my heart.

I need to figure out stronger ways to protect myself and my energy, to practice vigilant self-care. What good am I to anyone if I am not 100%? It’s like how they tell you on airplanes: secure your oxygen mask before assisting others.

So now I think I need a game plan. A tiny-step-by-tiny-step plan. What that looks like I have yet to figure out. For now, I just want to crawl under the blankets for a little while.

Oh, and here's a photo of me & Junot to close it out:


(Oh yeah, and that's another story: the strangeness of Old Self fighting for space in the New Self while encountering loved ones from the Old Self's life. For the record, both Old & New Self love Junot.)

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Conscientiousness, Ally-ship, and the Big Picture



This is Essay #24 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished, totally messy!) essay each week during 2017.


The field across from Bread Loaf Inn. Just because.

Let’s talk about race, shall we? And white ally-ship, yes?

First: a few excerpts from Camille Dungy’s essay, “The Conscientious Outsider”, from her new Guidebook to Relative Strangers:

“I was thinking about how race directs the course of all my actions. My taste in films, who I befriend, the things I choose to write about, all are influenced by the particular position (or number of positions) I occupy in American culture. My otherness manifests itself in what I eat, what I watch, what I read, what lipstick I can wear, where I can walk unmolested.” (p. 8)

“This is a set of exchanges you can’t get away from if you life in America in a body that looks like mine.” (p. 9)

“When you are a conscientious outsider, dinner can be a dangerous and tiring affair.” (p. 10)

*

In grade school, I often received comments on my report card from teachers who used the word “conscientious” to describe my work as a student. I never truly understood what that meant. To me, it simply said that I paid attention in class; it wasn’t that hard to do.

Our friends at Merriam-Webster define it as: governed by or conforming to the dictates of conscience: scrupulous; and meticulous, careful.

As an adult, I now understand it to mean there’s a certain level of awareness, a kind of knowledge that stretches beyond definitive facts. It takes into account other factors and circumstances that may influence how one looks at the facts. In other words: it looks at the big picture.

Camille’s essay has brought this word to my attention once again. In the essay, she talks about her position as a black woman moving in American spaces and how we, people of color, are continually, for lack of a better phrase, on alert. How we look at everything through a racial lens because of the skin we’re in and the position we occupy in this country. The essay’s title has made me stop and consider: am I still a conscientious student? I’d like to think so. I’d like to think that I never stopped being one. But what I’m finding is that, as time goes on, there are less people like me. There are fewer people who stop to really examine the facts before them and inquire how that information may be influenced by the big picture. Or even by their own individual lens.

This is so apparent in our current cultural and political climate. Too many of us are quick to accept what we read as indisputable fact. We are quick to judge and crucify those who do not fit our vision of the world. There is no room for nuance. (See: reactions to Alex Tizon’s essay, “My Family’s Slave”, which appeared in the June issue of The Atlantic.) Critical thinking has all but vanished from the general public. (At least that’s how it appears at first glance. There are plenty of media outlets that prove otherwise and I am encouraged by them! Check out Bitch Media, for example. What I am referring to here is “mainstream” media, which often is bought and paid for by those in power who want to send certain messages to the uncritical public. But that is for another discussion.)

While at Bread Loaf Orion, I had many amazing conversations, which ranged in topic from writing process to political activism to kundalini yoga and everything in between. Two conversations in particular stand out to me after having read Camille’s essay.

Joe Wilkins, one of the faculty, read a chapter of his new book due out next spring. From what I remember, the story takes place in the Badlands. The chapter was in the voice of a man (the book’s villain) who, in trying to protect his land, unlawfully shot a wolf, which took a turn where he then shot a police officer. This excerpt was part of his lecture on “Hearing Voices: Speaking as the Other in Environmental Writing”.

Now.

With a title like that, I couldn’t help but think: Oh, white guy is going to write from the point-of-view of a person of color. Or, perhaps, from the point-of-view of an animal or some entity in nature… after all, it says right there “—in Environmental Writing”. Because I’m a woman of color, when you say “Other” and it comes capitalized, this is what runs through my mind.

Uh, nope.

This chapter was told from the point-of-view of a white guy. And Wilkins’s attempt to write the Other was simply from the perspective of someone who was a villain. The character was just like him: white and male. The only difference was economic. That, and the character was seen as the “bad guy”.

Not exactly much of a stretch in my opinion. But, I was willing to listen anyway. I wanted to be as open-minded as I could. (Why is it that folks of color tend to do this more often than white folks? Just an observation from my personal experiences.) I ended up leaving a tiny bit early during the Q & A when one woman in the audience gushed and gushed over his reading about how he was so successful in humanizing a villain. What I missed out on was a question from a woman of color who challenged him.

Later, in the computer lab, I bumped into a white woman who praised him, saying “Wasn’t he amazing?” To which I replied, “Really? Can you tell me why? People are praising him and I don’t know why.”

“Just the way he was able to capture that character in a way that showed compassion. Just amazing.”

“Eh. I guess. (pause) I really wasn’t into it.”

“Really? I’m curious to hear your thoughts on it.” I was surprised.

“Really? Everyone seems to be so taken by his reading. I didn’t think anyone would want to know about a different response.”

“No, no. I want to know.” So I took a deep breath, preparing myself for a conversation I know all too well and then proceeded.

“Well, as a woman of color, I see everything through a racial lens, and well, all I heard was yet another white guy telling a white guy story. To be honest, I’m kinda tired of these stories.” I waited for the usual rebuttal. For this white woman to come to Wilkins’s rescue. Instead, she surprised me.

“I want to hear more, but I have to run to a meeting. Let’s find each other over lunch and talk.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, I’m really interested in hearing about your take on it.”

And so we did it. We found each other during lunch and had a really great, open dialogue about race and representation, who gets to be heard and who doesn’t. This woman, Trish O’Kane, came to the conversation with an understanding of her own white privilege and put that aside to hear me, to really hear me and see me. We ended up talking about a wide range of things with regard to race and privilege and position. We talked about ways in which we can take action, ways in which we can inspire and incite change. It was such a lively, engaging and productive conversation – and one that felt like an equivalent exchange between peers, people who were receptive to each other’s thoughts and ideas. Trish was and is an example of a true white feminist ally. I am grateful that our paths have crossed.

But it doesn’t stop there. There was another woman, Claire Boyles, with whom I shared housing. We were assigned to the Earthworm Manor (sounds like a children’s show, says my friend Mo, complete with hand puppets), which was a bit off campus. We hit it off right away, exchanging stories about our kids and our attempts at trying to be working moms and writers at the same time.

On the last night of the conference, we happened to bump into each other and Wilkins’s reading came up again. She, like others, was taken by his reading. I casually expressed my disinterest, which perked up Claire’s ears.

“Why didn’t you like it?” Here we go.

I proceeded to tell her the same thing I told Trish. Surprisingly, we ended up having a conversation similar to the one I had with Trish. It was really engaging and productive, as effective dialogue should be. We actually heard each other. She told me that the story resonated as she is a former farmer and could relate to the struggles that the character faced. I could see how she enjoyed his reading.

As we talked, plenty of questions were raised. For whom are we writing? Are we thinking about who is included and/or excluded? What purpose might that serve? Generally speaking, how can we create art that connects us? That makes us want to care? Maybe this last question is the key –because I really didn’t care about Wilkins’s story. Maybe the answer is in the writing. Is the writing compelling enough to draw you in, to make you want to care? Because, in the end, it comes down to appealing to our common humanity, right? Or, at least that’s the idea. If we’re aware enough of the big picture.

It was quite refreshing. To be seen and heard (instead of dismissed or gaslighted) by conscientious white women on two occasions in one week. It was also heartening.

I thanked both women for hearing me, for truly listening.

“What more can we do?” they each asked.

“Get your white women friends and share your viewpoint with them. And to really challenge them on their ideas of allyship.  Ask them what they’re willing to do in order to incite change, to really make change happen. They’re more likely to listen to you than to me.”

I think we were hopeful and inspired by each other, leaving Bread Loaf Mountain with new genuine connections and a brighter outlook.

At the end of both of these conversations, we asked ourselves: will it be enough? I don’t know. But at the very least, it’s a start.


Sunday, June 11, 2017

Bread Loaf Orion Redux

This is Essay #23 (a little late) of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished) essay each week during 2017.

I just spent an amazing and intense week at the Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writers Conference, which took place at Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English, which is a small campus on a mountain with spotty cell service and fickle wi-fi. I mentioned this in my previous post. This is not to be confused with the “regular” Bread Loaf Writers Conference (sometimes referred to as “Mother Loaf”, among other less-endearing nicknames) that happens in August.


The famous Bread Loaf telephone booth

This conference was a gathering of writers of the environmental bent. What that means is something I’m still trying to figure out. Sure, we’ve got the creative nonfiction folks who’ve got it easy: they write about the environment – from journalistic pieces to memoir-like personal essays. But what does it mean to be an environmental poet? I have no idea. And I went to the dang conference! Haha!

For now, I am using this label as lens through which I see my work. I’m not adjusting my work to fit the label (labels are not useful in creating art), but rather asking questions of my work: how it is functioning in the world? And then: how does it function through an environmental lens? I know: what the heck does THAT mean? I’m not exactly sure, but I’m using it to investigate the relationship between my work and the natural world. Looking at connections between the natural world and the social world of humans and where my work might fit in to explore these connections (cuz right now we humans are not exactly in great relationship with Mother Earth). Sounds like fun, right?

Anyway, the conference had a very full schedule: lecture after an early breakfast, two and a half hour workshop, lunch, craft classes, meetings with editors and agents, social (uh, happy) hour, dinner, faculty readings, participant readings. All good stuff at concentrated levels of intensity. I think I cried at least once each day, usually during a lecture or faculty reading. They were all so touching and eye-opening and passionate and vulnerable. And I’m not a crier. (Which is a label that’s quickly changing into the opposite.)

In my previous post, I mentioned that Camille Dungy lectured about uncertainty and how we might embrace it rather than fear it. This was only one of several lectures that brought the tears. Ross gave a talk called “Entering the Trees” in which he looked at trees and all that they held – from light to the source of books to books themselves to survival lessons they can teach us humans to its history and relationship to lynching. Robin Wall Kimmerer touched me with her lecture “What Does the Earth Ask of Us” as she encouraged us to listen to the earth, to be in relationship with her, to practice reciprocity rather than take take take, to consider our language and how it can be either one of violence or one of love. It has changed how I not only look at the natural world at large, but how I move through the world in my daily existence. And this complements my yogic outlook on life like matched puzzle pieces.

The fact that all of the participants were coming together for a purpose larger than ourselves lent to creating a really supportive and encouraging community. (I’ve heard stories of the “Mother Loaf” being competitive at the cutthroat level and the subconscious enforcement of an incredible hierarchy: from famous writer to lowly waiter. And we won’t mention stories of sexual harassment and racism. I’m sure Google can help you on that one.) Bread Loaf Orion is vastly different in this way. But what struck me most was the number of writers of color that I saw – I was thrilled. I had attended this conference two years ago and didn’t see much color. This year was significantly different. I suspect that some of this diversity had to do with who was on faculty this year: Ross Gay & Camille Dungy. If you have faculty of color, you will attract more people of color, if that’s what you want. And from interacting with both the Bread Loaf folks and the Orion Magazine folks, this is the impression I’ve gotten. They want to hear from more voices, those outside of the stereotype of white environmentalist dude that you often presume when you hear the term “environmental writer”. And I am so grateful for this, for their desire to amplify marginalized voices. I think they’re doing a pretty good job so far. I look forward to seeing how they grow from here (pun intended – ha!).


Me with Ross trying to take a selfie

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

You Can Count On Uncertainty and Change

This is Essay #22 (a little late) of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished) essay each week during 2017.

I miss a week of essay writing and then totally forget how to write one. It’s hard to get back on the horse, even after missing only a week. Doubly hard when I’m not home in my usual routine. But let’s give this a shot.

This week, I am at the Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writers Conference in rural Vermont. I want to emphasize “rural” because I have spotty cell service at best and the wi-fi here has been fickle. I don’t even know if I’ll be able to post this essay while here. So, naturally, this has me thinking about our relationship to both our natural environment as well as to technology.

While I don’t think I’m that old, saying this might make me feel old: I spent my childhood without computers. I was in high school when I learned how to write a computer program in BASIC for MS-DOS (see? we used acronyms back then – the precursor to text language. Haha!). Email was something invented when I was in college. Internet relay chat rooms (IRC) was today’s equivalent of text messaging. All this to say: I know how to live without technology.

Or at least I used to.

Being here, with limited access to the world “out there”, has shown me just how much I rely on technology. And I am one who is mindful of my use of technology in terms of devices (I don’t have many – a laptop and a smartphone. No tablet.) and screen time. So I am surprised by my slight anxiety at not being able to check in on my family. Or, admittedly, my Facebook page.

Still, I am also looking at this as an opportunity. Instead of going online, I will spend my break time thinking about all that has happened here at the conference these past two very-full days. There have been a lot of amazing conversations about writing process and practices, but also discussions about our environment and the role art plays in activism and social justice. I can’t say much about it yet, as my brain needs some time to process all of this into something coherent. But I will say it all feels really good.

And the body doesn’t lie.

Yesterday morning, Camille Dungy gave a lecture called “What If We’ve Got It All Wrong: Writing Into the Liberation of Uncertainty” and it was everything I needed to hear. Generally speaking, it continued my thinking about change as the only constant thing in our lives, as I am reading Pema Chodron’s book, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change.

There’s a lot of change going on in the world. Both on a personal level and a larger scale.

*

I told Ross about yet another instance in which I cried. This, after telling him I cried during his reading on Saturday night. After I told him I cried during parts of Monday night’s reading. My eyes are freaking waterfalls! And each time I shared a moment in which I cried (I even told him about some yoga moments of weeping), I would also say “But I’m not a crier.” To which he pointed out the obvious: “You keep saying that but I don’t think that’s true.”

For most of my life, I didn’t cry. If there was ever an urge to cry, I would hold it in, swallow that lump in the throat and stuff it down into the pit of my belly. Crying was viewed as weakness; and in an Asian family, weakness was not an option. As a child, I couldn’t even cry when I was getting a whip of the belt. I wouldn’t let myself. I tightened my face and squeezed, hoping that would be enough to hold in the tears.

Of course, we all know now how the body stores memory. How it stores trauma. How it keeps score of what happens to it. (An aside: go check out Bessel van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma! Soooo amazing!)

I said to Ross: “I think I’ve become a crier over the last year.”

To another friend a few months ago: “I think I’m making up for all that withheld crying. It’s all pouring out now, like a flood.”

Talk about change.

*

There is so much uncertainty in our world today. (For one, the earth just got put on the fast track to death. See: Paris Climate Accord.) I know this is an obvious statement, but sometimes I need to say it aloud in order to make it real, to make sure I’m not imagining things. It’s all so overwhelming. Uncertainty can be daunting to the point where fear takes over and I become paralyzed. But as Camille said in her talk: in uncertainty lies possibility. So much possibility. She invited us to seize that, to embrace it. Because, I concluded, when things become static, we begin to die. So if we’re going to die anyway, might as well make it fun and wild and unpredictable. Make it the life we want to live. Right?

So where do we begin to take action? How do we choose where to act? To seize the possibility in uncertainty? To make the change we want to see? I have to remind myself: one step at a time. Also this: change happens little by little.

I didn’t become a tech-reliant crybaby overnight.