Fanning Flames, and Soothing Burns

“Anger is like ice in a high ball glass. It’s a good place to start, but it’s not going to do much for you until you start filling in the spaces with something more substantial.”

-me, pretending like I’m some sort of person who drinks from a high ball glass.

Thanks to the current state of politics in this country, I encounter a lot of anger these days. Not so much from the conservative right, since I mostly avoid those people, and not so much from the centrist pacifiers who are mainly super privileged folks who can afford to check out when they’re feeling all kumbaya and shit. I get exposed to the bulk of other people’s anger coming from leftists, radical progressives, and the marginalized. Their anger is righteous, explosive, and burns about 100,000 times hotter than any Karen-who-wants-to-speak-to-the-manager. It’s pretty glorious to witness in certain situations – exploding like Vesuvius over decrepit old opinions in favor of the status quo. Or bearing down like a freight train on “devil’s advocates” or the willfully ignorant. Or standing like a mountain before an onslaught of anti-social hate speech. Anger fuels the resistance, and it is out-fucking-standing.

So here’s a funny little thing about that last metaphor, though. Does a car with only a gas tank run? I mean, fuel is essential, but it’s not the only thing, right? There’s also an engine, full of cooperative working parts. There are wheels – those are important to make it go, and usually a driver or navigator of some sort. There’s a whole system that in addition to anger, drives the vehicle of change. And let’s not overlook the other significant aspect of some fuels, which is that they can blow up in your goddamn face when deployed in unsafe situations.

It’s not for me to define what an unsafe situation is, nor how much fuel any one particular person (or movement) needs. And I definitely don’t remark on the justification for anger, or any other emotion for that matter. Feel what you feel, that’s everyone’s right. But I’ve been reflecting on the effectiveness of that anger for change as I watch friends and allies both get singed by the authentic and intense heat of justice-driven anger, and wondering where my personal line is.

To illustrate, I’m going to use a recent quote from the actor and outspoken advocate for progressive social policies, Chris Evans: “The hardest thing to reconcile is that just because you have good intentions, doesn’t mean it’s your time to have a voice.” I’ll be honest that my first reaction was along the lines of, “Congratulations, sir, for finally figuring out that your voice is not the most important one in the room. Here’s a cookie to celebrate – please choke on it.” Because I’m angry, dammit, that after 40-plus years of being talked over, ignored, condescended to and just generally disrespected as a woman, this is a “revelation” to some. Now extrapolate that feeling outward to people of color and their lived experience, to non-binary folx, to the disabled, to anyone whose life doesn’t fit into our highly restrictive society. That collective anger is justified – by which I mean having that anger may be the only justice some of us will ever see.

But how effective is using that anger to frame my reaction to Mr. Evans’s statement? Dude has a twitter following of almost 9 million. That quote was in the New York Times, which reaches over nine million readers. Even assuming that crossover is nearly 1:1, that’s nine million people who were exposed to a successful, admired celebrity saying that sometimes it’s best to shut up and listen. Not everyone will take his advice to heart, but I’ve also learned that when it comes to changing minds, a “spray and pray” approach to getting the message out is just as necessary as targeting strategy. So while my reaction to his statement is initially born of anger (even if the expression is more like eye-rolling annoyance), what’s the alternative? That he never say anything? That he just be born knowing how to dismantle the cis-heteronormative, racist, ableist, profit-driven and acquisitive society that gave him that platform? Or that he stay silent in his knowledge? In modern parlance, the guy is becoming woke – and I know from experience what a painful, awkward process that is in private, let alone when it happens in front of millions of people. What does denigrating his process accomplish?

Which isn’t to say that his process needs to be celebrated. It’s not a binary system, that if you’re not criticizing, you’re lavishing praise. But there are so many things to be angry about – why waste fuel on a car that’s already powering itself down the road?

I’ve been attacked and criticized for this point of view. I’ve been told that I’m giving the undeserving a pass, or that I’m engaged in some sort of convenience-morality whereby I cherry pick my causes. And you know what? There’s some truth to that. Because at this stage in my life, I’m aware that I don’t have an unlimited supply of energetic anger and that I’ve greatly benefited from being given an undeserved pass – both things informed my journey to where I am and probably continue to do so. Another aspect that informs my journey is my privilege, of which I have an outsized serving. As a white, cis-het woman who can pay her bills every month, the only way for my invisible knapsack to get any bigger would be if I was a gender-conforming male. I am not often the vulnerable target, and I think my non-negotiable moral duty is to communicate effectively on behalf of the vulnerable. Sometimes that means curbing my knee-jerk reaction. Sometimes I AM the vulnerable target, and I need others to communicate effectively for me. “Others” like rich white straight dudes with a massive platform.

My social circle includes a lot of activists who are angry a lot of the time. Mostly they’re a lot younger than me, which I think probably has its own post worth of material which I won’t get into here. The horrendous emotional and physical toll our country’s direction is having on them is heartbreaking to watch. Their anger bubbles over often and sometimes I make the judgement that it’s inappropriate. That’s dumb. The anger is theirs to have regardless of my arbitrary internal scale of acceptability. But it’s also true that other people I care about, allies not so far along in their process or genuinely kind-but-clueless friends and family are getting torched in the fire of righteousness. Some will come out stronger and smarter (most, probably, because that’s just the sort of person I associate with), but relationships will be hurt, too. The relationships that we’re all going to increasingly need as the fight for equality, access, and visibility lengthens and worsens. I’m not here to call anyone out – my observations of this phenomenon simply inspires me to share my perspective. And tomorrow I may post why sensitivity is misplaced when social justice is literally life or death.

For today, though, I want to be kind where I can.

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Empty Spaces

I’ve been thinking lately about spaces.

Safe spaces, community spaces, spaces between words and thoughts. How loss leaves spaces there are no guidebooks for navigating. Many, many people are dealing with that in the wake of the Orlando massacre, and my heart breaks for them.

Before I asked my husband to leave our shared space, I was desperate for him not to. I was terrified of the emptiness he’d leave behind. Then, when I was full to the brim with the kind of terror that comes from watching your most trusted and loved partner turn on you, I was desperate for space away from that. All I wanted was the time, distance and silence of the emptiness he left behind. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

Reclaiming my spaces is a slow process. Physically, it’s a lot of cleaning, which is not very romantic or literary. Virginia Woolf managed to make claiming your physical space sound lofty and appealing, but for me, it’s been about scrubbing grout. It’s been about getting on my knees and confronting the filthiest spaces I can find. It’s been about punishment and hard work and the basic labor of managing “stuff”. Some people burn sage, I organize. Part of that is because I need my physical space orderly and clean before I can confront my mental spaces. Part of it is procrastination so I don’t have to. In either case, though, it’s satisfying in its own way.

Mental spaces are harder to define. I am alternately hiding or lost in mine. Desperate or peaceful. Reclaiming that space, however, is not as simple as boxing up a lot of old crap to donate. No one wants the clutter in my mind. I’ve been relearning loneliness, and dwelling in my own space alone. Not necessarily the same thing, are they? The empty space in my head has been both a yawning cavern and a cozy nook, and it can’t really pick one and stick with it for any length of time. Two weeks ago, I hid in my bathtub because the empty space threatened to swallow me up. I don’t mean I took a bath. I mean I crawled into my empty bathtub, fully clothed in the dark and sobbed and screamed into a pillow because the emptiness that I had so longed for became an unmanageable monster that was going to destroy me.

It didn’t. That I know of, anyway. I may have lost something in that tub – I think it might’ve been my dignity.

Shortly thereafter, I disappeared from my online spaces – those intangible light screens that bring us together and divide us so efficiently – because the cozy nook of empty space was back. The monster was tamed, or maybe it was me tamed and completely in its thrall. I pulled my empty space around me like a cloak and dwelt in the silence happily. Until it became stifling and scary and vast and implacable once again.

How does one reclaim a space that refuses to be defined?

It’s hard to live like this. Harder still for the people whose loves, color, bank accounts, or beliefs force them to exist in these undefined spaces every day. People who’s spaces are overtaken by hateful rhetoric, or even just ignorant words. I have emptiness in my head and in my home, but it’s private if I choose to keep it that way. I’m thinking now of those people who must learn to exist constantly in the emptiness because their countrymen, neighbors, relatives and representatives demand they be set apart. Because when they fill their emptiness with anger, they’re told to be “respectful”. When they fill it with love, they’re murdered.

I wonder if they are alternately lost or hiding. I wonder how they will reclaim their violated spaces.

I wonder if I’ll ever feel full again, and if I even deserve to when so many around me struggle with their imposed emptiness. Join me in my tub, maybe? We can scream and sob together, watch our dignity slide down the drain, and find, like Pandora, hope in the emptiness.

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