Tuesday, November 21, 2017

For Nini, With Love

Nini  & I, Dec. 2009
I wish I had reached out more to my grandmother Nini, given her more hugs and let her know more often that I'm grateful for the care she showed me in childhood.

Then again, life has an odd way of distilling emotional truths from complicated circumstances.

Perhaps, the taboos of my adult life would have proven too much had I shared more of my mature self with my grandmother. If my stories of infidelity, agnosticism, protest and shamanic quests had stood in the way of her receiving my core truths, I'm confident she'd agree that would have been a greater travesty than my relative silence—especially since I did share carefully selected reflections on making music, running a business and caring for my unique children. As I age, my experience with Nini has inspired the following goals:

  1. Never place the burden on the children to keep in touch. Instead, continue reaching out to them, sharing tidbits of life as an old crone, reflecting on memories of their youth, encouraging them to discover new things and to keep taking action always.
  2. Keep taking action always within a community large and loving enough to offer support to my immediate family when I die.
  3. Continue exercising the ability to hold space for loved ones without casting moral judgment.

Maybe it's odd, but I am very thankful for these goals. I am also especially thankful for my last three visits with Nini.

The first happened last winter. My cousin Will, a fellow only child and thus substitute sibling, had come to visit Nini as well. He'd made the trip by plane from Virginia, and I drove down from Northwest Georgia, where Nini had spent my childhood across town from me and my parents.

Scene from Nini's Memorial
On last winter's trip, Will and I had a lot of time alone together. We delighted in the ways our paths have paralleled and diverged. We addressed deep family stories about the way love and fear have created limitations in our ancestry, and about the ways we are re-writing some of these patterns in our lives. Near the end of my visit, when Will and his father were settling into their own rhythm at my uncle's apartment, I took one-on-one time with Nini. We sat at the kitchen table laughing and talking. Were it up to me, I could have stayed through the night, but there was (as there often was) something pressing against our time together. It has always felt a little as though my grandparents open a portal to communicate with me—their world on the other side marked by more complexity than they ever wanted to show. I remember standing in the driveway hugging Nini. I showed her my new car, and she was concerned that my children could crawl out the back seat. I assured her they traveled safely there.

Playing TerraPan @ Nini's Memorial
The second visit happened in a Columbus, Georgia, ICU following Nini's first stroke. My mother (Nini's daughter) and I were allowed back together with no other guests. I had brought a TerraPan with me, but my mother insisted I leave it in my car because she feared it would create a stir with the staff and upset her father and brother. I obliged and focused instead on a drawing my daughter made of herself and Nini standing on opposite sides of a rainbow bridge. I also brought a stack of photographs. Most of the time my mother and I were present at Nini's bedside, Nini slept and snored just the same as she had on long trips back from Florida. Fortunately, she woke before my departure. She couldn't speak or focus well, but it was clear she knew I was present. I put my hand on her shoulder and tried to say only what felt most important to me:

I love you. I see the parts of your story which you could not fulfill. I thank you for giving me the chance to nurture those in my own way. I live with immense gratitude for you, for my parents, for my friends and for my children. You have influenced how I treat all of them, and everything is exactly as it needs to be. I will always remember you and will greet you with joy should our souls meet beyond death.

My mother and I formed a circle with her then and meditated on the colors of the rainbow, washing through each of us, affirming our bond, giving us courage despite our fear. Leaving that day, I felt I would see Nini one more time.

Will & I @ Nini's Hospice
After my son's 7th birthday and the solar eclipse this past August, Nini had a second stroke and moved to hospice. My mother and I drove to see her there, and my cousin had again come down from Virginia. This time, Nini was deeply asleep and could not speak. I touched her and attempted to connect with her thoughts. All I saw was hummingbirds. It reminded me of an experience I had once during an indigenous ceremony when I felt myself die and then be reborn. In that meditation, I was carried back from the depths of myself to my waking life on the wind of hummingbird wings, which beat around me and whispered deep truths about my choices, triumphs and fears. This August, I felt Nini readying herself for the hummingbirds to take her far beyond the proverbial veil. I felt her tell me only to go get my instrument and play.

Again, my mother feared this would create a disturbance. However, I walked calmly past her and sat down outside my grandmother's room in the sun. My grandfather and uncle sat in rocking chairs guarding her door, and I said I was going to play for them. When I finished, they made the request that I play for Nini. So, I did. Her breathing seemed to calm, and the music set a peaceful tone for the gathering of me, my mother, my cousin, his father and our grandfather as we embraced and connected with the few other guests who came in that day—my great aunt Meg, always regarded as being particularly smart and strange, and my grandmother's baby sister Patsy, the organizer of big holiday gatherings from years past. When I left that day, I felt it would be the last time I saw Nini. I touched her tenderly and said goodbye. My mother drove me back to my town, and we waited in the park for my children to greet us there. They came running toward us drenched in the special sunbeams which fall at dusk from the north Georgia sky.

Nini & Grandaddy's Visit After My Son's Birth
Nini's body is ashes now. My grandfather eschewed the burial ceremonies he'd long championed and instead made a small altar for quiet reflection within his home. Meanwhile, my mother and I planned a memorial within her home for me, my parents, my children, my husband and one dear friend to attend. With my father's help, we cleared a garden area near the sun room and placed a bird bath there. We dedicated it to Nini and hung a print of a hummingbird on the wall inside. I shared a eulogy and played my TerraPan. Afterward, we scattered seeds and seashells around the bird bath in the drizzling summer rain—a group of soulmates mourning and moving on.

I still struggle to tell all my family how much I love them. Nini's death also helps remind me this might not matter that much. As much as I love words, they have always created as many barriers as bridges.

A month after her death, my mom and I traveled to Nini's house to help my grandfather sort through her things. He told us then her last moments there had been in the kitchen, sitting as she had with me last winter. She had been looking out the window, watching hummingbirds.

In Nini's honor, I would like to share the eulogy I composed here:

Painting a Birdhouse @ Nini's Memorial
Laura Alice Allen Yarbrough, affectionately known as Nini, spent 81 years alive on this earth. The time I remember her best was here in Rome, Georgia, taking me on after school adventures, falling asleep (against my orders) during movies, giving tours of the plants in her yard and making sure that everyone had enough to eat. She had a bold sense of humor and a level of social and academic intelligence which surpassed the norms of her time, especially for women.

Her final years of life centered on the challenge to take ownership of her own healthcare. In may ways, she succeeded in this. Nonetheless, her body still had its final say, and she gracefully released her soul to become part of whatever exists outside our human perception on August 24, 2017. While this process always comes with some level of sadness and regret, it also comes with joy and gratitude. All life is a fleeting part of a much greater whole, and death the natural culmination of life.

In addition to whatever cosmic form her energy now takes, Nini's spirit will continue to live through everyone she has ever touched. Together now, we carry forward her story with a focus on gentleness, transition, change, hope and love.

We light a candle for these things now and draw their energy into this garden grove to be dedicated in her honor September 5, 2017.

Thank you for acknowledging these stories.

Me, my mother & my children--returning from our final visit with Nini.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

A NORML Mom Celebrates! #DecrimATL, #FeeltheBern, #MaytheFortBeWithYou, #KillerMike

A Mighty Step Forward
Killer Mike likes my shirt! Read to the end for details.

In the midst of a culture riddled with violence, natural disasters, economic uncertainty and threats to our civil rights, small steps continue to move us forward. Tonight, I'm celebrating the good news: Atlanta, Georgia, just passed a city ordinance to decriminalize cannabis! It is official: Possessing up to one ounce of marijuana in the city of Atlanta no longer guarantees a criminal record. Rather, it can be resolved with a simple citation and $75 USD fine.

While law enforcement officers will have leeway in choosing whether to honor the new ordinance or the harsher penalties called for by Georgia state law, today's vote shows major progress. It at least allows people a chance of escaping the dead-end downward spiral which an arrest record can cause. It also sends the message that, while cannabis use isn't for everyone, it isn't a crime either.

Legalization is the next step. I have total admiration for all my friends within Peachtree NORML who have worked relentlessly to insure that people keep talking--among themselves, with their local government officials, at their places of work, at their places of worship, in the media, and via their personal art and activism--about the benefits of cannabis and the need to reform the laws surrounding its use. Georgia Care Project also deserves tremendous credit for bringing change to Atlanta.

The same is true for the government officials who support our work as activists. This past Saturday  I witnessed Senator Vincent Fort give voice to his promise to legalize cannabis in Atlanta should he win his current campaign to become mayor. Fort, backed by none other than Senator Bernie Sanders and Atlanta's own hip-hop activist Killer Mike, explained that legalization is a significant human rights issue. I learned Saturday that Atlanta tops national charts for limited class mobility. I also learned a leading reason for this is the crippling series of events which often follow an arrest for possession of marijuana.

Unintentional Complacency

Unfortunately, one thing I've encountered in my activism is a stunning lack of enthusiasm for legalization as a social justice issue. If policies do not impact people directly, in ways they immediately feel, many become dismissive. For them, the systemic racism inherent to the drug war does not matter if they are not a person of color themselves. Likewise, the threat of arrest for marijuana doesn't hit home if they either abstain or have lived successfully under the radar for many years.

The same principles apply to other issues facing Atlanta right now as well--specifically the loss of homes to imminent domain, the fight for a living wage and public education reform at both the K-12 and university level. The urgent need for solutions is lost on those who have never lived in a threatened zone, never struggled to meet their basic needs, never sought learning alternatives for their children, or never graduated with advanced degrees and no employment in sight.

In my opinion, the passage of today's decriminalization ordinance can galvanize people to wake from  unintentional complacency. This is thanks to its potential to eliminate some deeply held stigmas. For example, unconscious racism, passed down through generations, will abate when fewer people of color are arrested over time. Likewise, I feel derogatory attitudes toward drug use will abate when adults openly demonstrate responsible use of marijuana.

Most importantly, people who have intentionally placed themselves within boxes because they wish to be "law-abiding" will feel more empowered to take ownership of their health and to fulfill their desires for the peace of mind and physical pleasure which cannabis use can bring. Signaling that use isn't inherently criminal affords people greater safety stepping outside their self-imposed comfort zones and literally experiencing new ways of perceiving reality.

My Grandmother's Boots

Thanks to my maternal grandmother, Laura "Nini" Yarbrough, I've had a unique opportunity for experiencing life in another person's shoes. This is because Nini died August 24 and left me the legacy of her wardrobe. My favorite item is a pair of high-heeled burgundy boots.

Nini always showed tremendous intelligence and a level of social awareness which transcended the norms of her time, especially in rural Alabama where she came of age. She always "got" my poetry and was proud I attended the Women's March on Washington. Nonetheless, she made peace with a homemaker's life and dedicated much of her personal energy to challenging healthcare providers whom she ultimately discovered had done her as much harm as good.

One of the last times I saw Nini, I thanked her for the story she passed on to me, and I pledged to continue carrying her energy out into the world. I take great pleasure in knowing that I am bringing her spirit into spaces where I feel she would never have stepped, yet nonetheless inspired me to go.

So far, my favorite of these places has been a photo opp with Killer Mike after the rally I attended Saturday. While Bernie Sanders and Vincent Fort made a respectful but swift exit, Killer Mike remained longer to take pictures with fans and to chat with the media. I find it fitting that, of the three, he is the artist, the one who shares his cause not so much by speaking about it as by allowing us to feel it--through his music mostly, as well as through the experience of knowing him, albeit fleetingly. Very patiently, he took time to calmly connect with each person gathered around him. He looked at, not past, each of us and found something positive and unique to say. Based on our energy, he gave hugs and high fives, extended invitations to come see him in his barber shop and to keep in touch. When people asked him to back their causes, he kindly asked to see some information first, establishing a boundary with grace.

 When it came to me, he said he liked my shirt. I was in "NORML Mom mode," showing up in support of the decriminalization measure which passed today.

From a Moment to a Movement

After the rally
It strikes me that Killer Mike's celebrity both protects him and leaves him vulnerably exposed. Thus, there is courage in his kindness. As I've described, he also handles himself with a striking amount of humor, humility and honor--for his own positions and for the humanity we share.

Speaking to the public, Killer Mike directed us to transform moments of inspiration into a movement supporting a greater cause, and I feel this greater cause centers on the ability to recognize and embrace our inherent and shared humanity. Doing this will allow us to begin re-shaping some of our driving cultural stories so that we can better address major challenges of our time--from climate change, to police brutality, to affordable housing, to minimum wage, to healthcare, to education reform, to nuclear war, to religious oppression, to freedom of expression, to a transition from capitalism to whatever comes next.

By encouraging freedom of expression and action, decriminalizing marijuana allows us to be just a little bit more in touch with our inherent humanity, and this is one of the reasons why it excites me so much.

To help Atlanta take their latest victory forward into a greater movement, please consider joining Peachtree NORML or the Georgia Care Project in their efforts to move from decriminalization to legalization. Also, if you have the opportunity to vote for Vincent Fort, please do! I know campaign volunteers will remain welcome from now until the election as well. To explore Fort's platform and access details about election day and volunteering, please visit VincentFort.com.

Finally, I thank you for reading this column and ask always that you allow this post to be a seed. Share it, and watch it grow!

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Support, Empathy & Truth: On Borderline Personality Disorder, Fascism & Antifa

My husband says goodbye prior to a rally
I have started and re-started a detailed post about my view of antifa, a loosely organized and widespread group of antifascist anarchists. As I describe in my previous post, I have marched alongside antifa. I have found them at that event, and others following, to be a far cry from dangerous to the general public. In fact, my experience is that people identifying as antifa take specific measures to keep people safe and that this is done in accordance with their principles, not as a publicity stunt.

With this in mind, I've found much of the conventional, social and fringe media's coverage of antifa troubling. I agree with assertions that antifa's willingness to use violence, alongside its broad parameters for identifying a potential fascist threat and its emphasis on protest over policies are inherently problematic. However, I disagree heavily with the way much of contemporary media has placed more attention on criticizing antifa's methods than on understanding their motivation. In my opinion, it is both counter-productive and dangerous to marginalize and/or condemn antifa's efforts in this way. This insight takes root in my personal observation that both sides of the fascists/antifa struggle exhibit signs of borderline personality disorder, which I have come to intimately understand via both academic study and my direct experience living with, loving and working alongside borderline people.

Borderline personality disorder happens when children who are born with sensory processing and integration differences (either mild or severe) grow up within a home which invalidates their life experience either through benign but consistent neglect or through deliberate, consistent physical and/or verbal abuse. Within relatively healthy environments, sensory processing and integration differences look like anything from learning disabilities, to ADD/ADHD, to OCD, to anxiety, to depression, to autism—all of which require their own level of understanding and care. However, within neglectful or abusive environments, children with sensory processing and integration differences also become hard-wired to be borderline—which is clinically characterized by extreme emotional responses, intense fear of abandonment, self harm, a tendency toward black or white thinking (which leads in turn to the intense idealization or demonization of people or groups), and periods of intense disassociation from reality.

Once wired to be borderline, there is not a chemical fix to the imbalance. The brain has to be re-wired, and the process takes dedication and time either from unusually committed therapists, unusually committed family members, or both. In order for the re-wiring to occur, borderline people have to fully express their truths to the extent that THEY FEEL heard. This often means that they are permitted to absolutely unleash waves of intense verbal rage, condemnation and manipulative rhetoric onto the people around them until they feel their point is made. Then, they must be met with support, empathy and a firm but gently issued statement of truth which recognizes any realistic core of what they've unleashed as well as everything which was grossly out of touch. This must be repeated over time with understanding and persistence. In response, borderline people eventually re-wire themselves and become healthy people who firmly break some seriously destructive family cycles.

A commitment to healing is not singular. It requires intense collaboration, persistence and understanding both on part of the borderline himself/herself, on the family members and on the therapists who all must be extraordinarily grounded in their sense of self so as not to suffer their own severe breakdowns in the face of the borderline's emotional outbursts. Statistically, most people walk away from borderlines for their own self preservation. Often, they walk away condemning the borderline, preaching that they could have done more had the borderline simply been able to “suck it up, take responsibility for his/her life and stop spewing abuse and playing the victim.” That line (suck it up, take responsibility, stop playing the victim) can be good for a borderline person to hear if it is said in an atmosphere which continues to offer actual support. However, I rarely hear it issued under those circumstances. It isn't “good old fashioned tough love and telling it like it is” as many moderate and popular conservative thought leaders seem to spin it. It is a self-protective measure which perpetuates an unpopular pathology currently pervasive in America and showing itself in the current fascists/antifa extremes.

What I think the response to antifa should be is public support, empathy and truth—in that order. That is an important step along the path to healing a culture of abuse, which strikes me as a core issue right now. Transcending humanity's violent tendencies does not heal their source. Participating with and/or encouraging antifa certainly doesn't either when that is all a person does. However, it does play an important role, and I feel it should be viewed as such.

In context, I feel antifa comes at the beginning of our culture's healing process. It represents the crash and catharsis which ultimately empowers the public to fight diplomatically for lasting change. It also allows people more aligned with fascism an opportunity to see their aggression reflected and to re-consider their own views. In my opinion, people who fall far on the side of fascism are those whose response to abuse has been to consciously perpetuate it. After spending formative years consistently condemned for being OTHER, legitimizing the abuse and claiming it as one's own returns a sense of purpose to the former victims' lives. Meanwhile, antifa strike me more as people who have realized there is nothing innately wrong or unnatural about being OTHER. For them, their life experience is validated by confronting their abusers head on.

The support I'm calling for from the public would ideally be directed toward each side. It would need to recognize that the fascist side legitimately feels as though it has been abandoned by a culture which has relatively steadily evolved to meet increasing needs of women, people of color and other former minority groups at the same time that financial crisis has meant a dramatic reduction in income and available jobs. It would also need to recognize that the antifa side legitimately feels as though it has been abandoned by a small but powerful sector of society which will do anything it can to blot out the existence of everyone with a different ideology than it. Empathizing with each side would mean recognizing that each is authentically afraid and has the best interests of humanity, as each side perceives it to be, at heart. Empathy also means avoiding the aforementioned and seemingly all to common pitfall of invalidating each side by acting as though their struggles are not real, can be remedied by some hardcore self-work, or should be met only with gratitude that circumstances are not worse.

With that in mind, I want to close with some truths which feel central to this struggle and stand out most to me right now. Some are verifiable, measurable objective facts. Others are observational and more personal in nature. I recognize the difference between the two and feel it's important for me right now to share both:

  • Cultures have enslaved and abused each other throughout the whole of human history. However, everyone's ability to claim this heritage does not exempt us from taking responsibility for our present acts of oppression.
  • While the United States of America does offer extensive opportunities to people of all backgrounds, it also breaks records for imprisoning its population, and the severity of consequences for the same crimes varies widely across racial, gender and class lines, with a heavy bias against lower class women of color.
  • It is the privilege and duty on American citizens to vote to change laws which do not reflect justice, and there are several reputable studies on the drug war which demonstrate that it is extremely unjust.
  • The United States and other global super powers wage wars purported to fight terrorism which focus more on the security of territories and the natural resources they contain, which in turn are exploited to the detriment of people and the planet.
  • Militarized police forces often escalate circumstances to points of violence which lead to divisiveness and erode trust.
  • Dogmatic teachings which have repressed the rights of women, people of color and a wide variety of non-conforming individuals are eroding despite opposition to change. As this happens and new social norms are established, there are a variety of approaches our society can take which have unique consequences.
  • How we express ourselves – be it in the form of active protest, petitions, spending choices, journalism, or the creative arts is very important to both revealing and shaping the direction of our culture. By all means, we must use our voices. We also must remain aware that how and when we express ourselves makes a statement of its own and always merits a response of some sort.
  • Our economy, education system, health care system and justice system have changed in response to a number of global factors, and there are multiple directions these can take in the future which all bear attention right now. Generation X, Xennials and Millenials are not simply re-waging their parents cultural wars but rather making unique contributions to human history.
  • Making uniform assumptions about ANY group holds inherent danger. Being overly cautious of what one says can also cripple our self expression. Fortunately, humans are capable of expressing a wide variety of views and objectively analyzing these to form more balanced perspectives over time.
  • We are all going to be drawn to different aspects of the cultural revolution unfolding around us. We will accomplish more from recognizing and respecting this than from fighting it. We owe it to ourselves to do our individual parts well and to allow others room to do the same.

As that last point is concerned, writing this essay has been one of my parts. I appreciate the people who have inspired me through their unique brand of opposition and support. Additionally, an excellent resource for understanding borderline personality disorder is the book I Hate You, Don't Leave Me, linked here. Detailed information on the war on drugs and incarceration rates in the USA can be found here and here on sites for the Drug Policy Alliance and the Center for Prison Reform. 

As I wrote after reviewing a Drug Policy Alliance conference in April, I still believe love wins in the end. However, love itself, in my opinion, defies easy definitions and requires its own dedication to understanding and perseverance over time as it leads us all, not above and beyond our pain, but rather through it.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Re-Dreaming America (Thoughts on Charlottesville & Atlanta Anti-Fascist Rally)

My Children & I at Sunday's Rally
There is a lot happening in America right now. I think this is true on any given day. However, it feels increasingly like we are taking solid steps to create a significant cultural shift. We are revisiting ideals of civil rights explored and exploded in the sixties in a way which has the potential to create solid and lasting change. This is not to say that changes of the sixties were not solid. Yet, I grew up in 80s and 90s America with the distinct feeling that, as soon as we'd ended overt segregation, welcomed women in the work force, allowed evolution into science classes and cleared the path for divorce and abortion, people with a mind to fight for human rights kind of leaned back on their laurels and coasted through a psychedelic revolution, which ended in either destructive chaos or complacent retreat into the comfort of the American Dream, which looked a lot like having 2 children, stable employment, a picket fence and a dog. The common refrain through all this seemed to be something like: Embrace your uniqueness and live your dreams as long as they do not upset the status quo in any major way. Everyone is entitled to a good life, but nothing is perfect. Make the most of the America you have. It's better than it used to be! Work hard enough, and anyone can go far.

Around the time my generation of Xennials graduated from high school, the twin towers fell, and our adult lives took root in a time of war. We learned through direct experience that employment and benefits are not guaranteed for any of us by virtue of skill, social status, determination or education. It feels like this has meant clinging more tightly to how we self-identify apart from our professional titles. At best, this means taking time to explore our individual authentic selves and to flourish in creative endeavors unique to us. At worst, this means clinging so tightly to cultural identifiers—like race and religion—that we become a violent force stopping at literally nothing to exert the power of our identity at the absolute expense of all others.

My Rally Cry
A limited number of extremist views can exist within, and contribute to, the balance of a healthy society. However, when an extremist position moves into the mainstream, balance becomes offset in critical ways which deeply endanger the existence of any group. In my opinion ,American culture has been normalizing extremes long enough that it is now in critical condition and showing symptoms.

Donald Trump's presidency is a symptom.

Police brutality is a symptom.

The recent violence within Virginia is a symptom.

In particular, the death and injuries left in the wake of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, represent both the prevalence of racism and of the propensity to de-humanize anyone who holds a different world view. Specifically, I'm talking here about the white domestic terrorist's ability to de-humanize the people he deliberately struck with his vehicle when he drove into a crowd of people who disagreed with his assertions of white supremacy and radical nationalism.

Meanwhile, I also recognize that white supremacists, radical nationalists and neo-Nazis of all stripes can make the claim that they too are being dehumanized by Antifa and others who explicitly condemn their actions. To this I say, white supremacists are not being de-humanized when they are being held accountable. Accountability can look many different ways. Personally, I disagree with those who say accountability is eye-for-an-eye condemnation. However, I also disagree with those who say accountability looks like prayerful peace. And, if I have come down squarely on one side or another, I'll stand with the Antifa crowd before I'll stand against it.

My Husband & Daughter
Accountability requires direct action: Sometimes that is marching in solidarity with others against violence, shouting with the beat of a drum that you do not accept what supremacy has done and that you are not afraid. Sometimes accountability looks like hacking a website and exposing the personal details of closeted supremacists. Sometimes accountability looks like removing or re-purposing artwork and monuments designed to celebrate historical victories which have come to look a lot like fascism.

Accountability can be as simple as signing petitions and labeling white supremacists as domestic terrorists when you speak about their actions. It can also be as complicated as dismantling and re-assembling the very systems at the bedrock of society which have allowed covert forms of extremist ideology to become the status quo. One of these systems is the prison-industrial complex. Connected to that, is the war on drugs. Revolution in these areas will do a lot to end racial profiling, modern day slavery and the stereotypes which accompany these practices now. Another system in need of changing is that which allows politicians to buy their power and to bow without consequence to industries, like oil, which threaten the survival of our species by ravaging our land.

Linked to these systems needing change are abstract concepts connecting the mind, body and spirit of society as a whole. Specifically, our view toward religion, science, art, philosophy, education, gender, race, relationships, work, money, neurological divergence (including mental illness), drugs, morality, healthcare, technology, capitalism, heritage and identity itself are due for an upgrade, so to speak. We use these ideas to create stories which communicate the shared values and goals of our culture, and many of the current stories have devolved (or are presently devolving) into dogma, which harms all of us by enforcing stigma rather than honoring our inherent humanity and all its unknowns.

Contributing directly to dismantling destructive human systems while shifting cultural norms to reflect and contextualize this restructuring is a goal of my personal activism. I write and teach to educate, introduce new ideas and spark discussion bringing about actual change. Sometimes, I also boycott, sign petitions, make calls and march. Sometimes I do this alone. Other times, I include my children. To a degree, I feel their long-term well-being relies on exposing them to current social issues, showing them firsthand the circumstances their generation will have to collaborate with my generation to change. I also want them to see that, when something happens to directly counter my personal morality and threaten what it means to exist within a country I do love despite its glaring faults, I take direct action to voice my dissent and to draw awareness to the need for change—even if imperfectly.

To this end, my family participated as a group in one of Atlanta, Georgia's, recent rallies against racism. It began before sunset at Woodruff Park on Sunday, August 13. Activists gathered on a pavilion, behind a memorial to the victims of the Charlottesville violence, and spoke about the need to combat hate with more than love alone. There was an open mic to the public, and my 9-year-old daughter spoke. Her focus was, arguably, the importance of love across race lines, yet the crowd did accept her warmly despite some differences in rhetoric. I felt very proud as a mother that she was brave enough to share her voice. For me, showing up at the rally was equivalent to what I wrote on her poster (pictured to the right): Our presence there meant we stand with C'ville, which in turn means we support a better way for all people to exist together. It is, in my opinion, not a time to defend or destroy our collective history but rather to acknowledge, as objectively as possible, who we have been, while creating new stories about who we are and will become.

After the rally, the crowd departed Woodruff Park in downtown Atlanta with signs and flags held high, marching to the beat of drums. We shouted chants—against Trump, against supremacy, against hate, for democracy and the power of the people. My 6-year-old alternated between walking himself, resting in my arms and riding atop my husband's shoulders. My 9-year-old walked boldly forward the whole way, her poster in her hands, but felt exhausted by the time we reached the destination at Piedmont Park. There, the crowd gathered around a statue, representing peace at the end of the Civil War, which the march's leaders adorned with chains and some streaks of red paint. It seemed the intention may have been to pull the statue down; however, a piece fell off injuring two demonstrators. A few marchers, my husband included, circled around the monument and the injured leaders, as one lone police officer joined the scene and announced quietly that no arrests would be made provided that the statue remain standing. The statue stood. No arrests were made. The crowd dispersed.

Talking to the Press, Outside Piedmont Park
By the time the vandalism had started, I had already walked my children to the sidelines of the event. Marching itself had felt empowering and focused in a way I hadn't experienced even at the Women's March on Washington, DC, but the energy upon arriving within Piedmont Park felt different than the energy on the journey there. I commend Atlanta as a city for the total lack of violence Sunday. I also commend the demonstrators for knowing when to evaluate the circumstances, make a sound judgment call and stand down. However, it does strike me as a bit bizarre that the targeted monument was one representing peace.

After much consideration, I feel the value of vandalizing that specific monument was to show that the peace and progress brought about by the end of the Civil War has been an illusion. In this case, the chains and red paint symbolize the pain, bloodshed and institutionalized prison-based slavery which continues in the present day and will no longer be complacently accepted. This is an important message, to be certain. It also symbolizes the willingness of the Antifa and its supporters to fight, if necessary, for the freedom of all groups oppressed by a society which continues to normalize extreme prejudice. Perhaps these metaphors could have been better expressed via some radical performance art or via the creation of an entirely new structure giving voice directly to our contemporary concerns. However, those projects may be better realized somewhere along the horizon. Change has to start somewhere, and I feel the positive impact of what we asserted on Sunday in Atlanta exceeds the negative. I'm honored to have been there.

As the future unfolds with more supremacist rallies and counter protests to come, I know I will attend some anti-fascist demonstrations and sit out others. However, I'm undeniably struck by the importance of art to the rising revolution. What we all create and boldly share has value now. Thank you for reading my stories. In the video below, my daughter and I speak.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Turn Your Back on Hate. Change Starts at Home.

My daughter enjoying #keystorome
Whether I'm a brave adventurer or certified homebody depends largely on whom you ask. I will jump in a car at a moment's notice to make the hour long trek to Atlanta, Georgia, or Chattanooga, Tennessee. I didn't blink at loading 3 children under 10 into a van and driving them 11 or so hours to see their father during summers he spent working in West Virginia. I hopped aboard a bus filled with strangers and road to Washington, DC, where I got lost after the Women's March and walked alone from one end of the district to the other, arriving at a crowded stadium with no clue which bus was mine about 10 minutes prior to its departure. However, in almost 35 years of life, I've only been on 2 round trip flights to anywhere and have never once left the United States.

As a local student at an international boarding school, I used to say: The world comes to me. This notion has continued into adulthood as the future owners of my company's musical instruments often travel from abroad to collect their new TerraPans. Through each of these ventures, I have helped make Rome, Georgia, a temporary home for people from virtually every continent. Yet, sometimes, I am still surprised by the ways my hometown, and the surrounding areas, reveal themselves to me.

Kingston garden bounty
I had an opportunity to revel in this a couple weeks ago when the local group Turn Your Back on Hate hosted Change Starts at Home, an evening of merriment and music in the courtyard of Schroeder's Deli in downtown Rome. A raffle was scheduled during the event, and I needed to drop off my donation, a CD of TerraPan music performed by the local artist John Hand. I intended to attend the event in the evening with my husband, but I enlisted my children to help me deliver the CD earlier in the day. Our journey was fruitful. It began with a stop by the gazebo south of Rome in Kingston, where a family of gardeners were selling herbs, vegetables, wild flowers, painted pots and snow cones. I live in Kingston and loved giving my children an opportunity to make a meaningful purchase from neighbors whose child had sat in my former middle school classroom just after my daughter was born.

Afterward, my now 8-year-old daughter settled down at a piano on the corner of Broad Street in Rome. She has always had an incredible knack for free style lyrics, and the keys added a welcome dimension to her playful, spontaneous art. We walked back and forth between Rome's new gourmet frozen pop shop Frio's and its landmark deli Schroeder's, each time seeing familiar faces and entertaining new ones with original songs.

The piano my daughter played exists thanks to the project Keys to Rome. Keys to Rome is one of many efforts supported by Turn Your Back on Hate, and its sister organization Peacefully Engaging the Rome Community. TYBOH and PERC exist to empower people to find their voices through artistic self expression, and the prevalence of this goal in Rome is one of the things which makes my hometown special to me. 

My husband, performing TerraPan at Change Starts at Home
One of my most vibrant memories of late childhood takes place in the Schroeder's courtyard. I attended a poetry reading which marked the publication of one of my favorite high school teacher's chapbooks, as well as his farewell to the south. He would be heading off to pursue new opportunities in New Hampshire in the morning. I spent the evening marveling at how the combination of a sudden rain storm clearing in the moonlight, my teacher's powerfully delivered elegy to a friend who spent many years courting death, and my chance encounter with a college student bound to protest with the Zapatistas in Mexico made for powerful memories in real time. However, the highlight of that evening was a familiar shopkeeper named Seth taking the stage with his band The Strange. My bare feet felt so good splashing in the puddles as I danced.

Twenty years later, with gray weaving its way through his otherwise red beard, Seth and the most recent iteration of The Strange took the stage at Schroeder's again the other Saturday night. So did my husband with his TerraPan. So did my friend Jessie Reed—not just as a performer, as I used to know her, but also as founder of TYBOH and PERC. Observing this, I felt the power in having spaces which hold constant. These spaces remind me how my passions have seeded and grown over time. These spaces also root us in our own stories—ultimately giving us more ground on which to stand and relate to different cultures, calling now more than ever for our compassionate attention, exploration and understanding.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

A NORML Mom Takes Not One Step Back

Saturday, April 22, citizens gathered across the globe to march for science. In the the wake of a US presidential administration which candidly denies scientific evidence in favor of “alternative facts” made up to suit their personal agendas, international support for scientific inquiry is vital. Climate change, natural resource management, and sustainable technology are obvious focal points. However, the medical uses of marijuana (and other federally illegal drugs) is another trending topic within the scientific community. So, for that matter, is the social science supporting an end to prohibition period. In keeping with these causes, I celebrated science Saturday 4/22 at the Morehouse College of Medicine, where I attended Not One Step Back: A One Day Strategy Session on the Drug War, Mass Incarceration and Public Health, brought to Atlanta by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA).

Based in New York, the DPA works nationwide to fulfill its stated mission: To advance those policies and attitudes that best reduce the harms of both drug use and drug prohibition, and to promote the sovereignty of individuals over their minds and bodies. In other words, DPA advocates for responsible use of all drugs, as well as for a society within which this is possible.

One major hurdle to achieving responsible drug use is de-stigmatizing the drugs themselves. An even more important hurdle is de-stigmatizing the people who use them. The de-stigmatization of people requires a major re-shaping of society into a system which centers on respecting our shared humanity rather than on celebrating business acumen and the accumulation of wealth. This means, ultimately, dismantling capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy—you know, the trinity which forms the bedrock of America. It's a big task and a tough sale—especially when small, personal victories occurring between the Civil Rights Movement and the present suggest there is not much amiss and that anyone who thinks otherwise is either wrong in some way or deserving of ridicule.

Rising above the stagnant thought pattern that nothing is wrong requires people to see on a broad scale how systemic white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism both sustain, and are sustained by, mass, ongoing oppression. We must recognize that, by simple virtue of our citizenship, we are part of this oppression. We must not condemn ourselves for this. Likewise, we must not justify our role. We must instead own it, as objectively as possible, and then take deliberate steps toward a better way of existing. Furthermore, we must act from self-motivation. No good comes from stalling your own evolution in the name of wanting someone else to do their work first. It is natural to evolve together, each person and group of people moving at different paces which ebb and flow over time.

I discovered the DPA via my work with PeachTree NORML. Unlike so many people I meet, I have known NORML existed virtually my entire life. The primary reason for this knowledge is simply my education. I read voraciously and pay attention to world around me. However, even knowing about NORML and sympathizing with the cause, I did not join until I hit a turning point a couple years ago after someone rear-ended and totaled my car. The investigating officer issued a ticket to the driver who hit me and then returned licenses to everyone except me. Instead of receiving my license, I was arrested on a bench warrant for missing routine traffic court. I then spent about 9 hours in custody waiting to be officially booked.

I am white. I had enough money to pay a cash bond. I was cable of navigating the system well enough that charges against me were easily resolved and my license restored within days of leaving jail. The officers I encountered treated me civilly. The inmates were kind. Nonetheless, I saw enough to know that not everyone received such gentle treatment, despite the fact that most people I encountered were there on charges of nonviolent drug possession. I was also acutely aware that, while the officers were choosing to treat me like a person, it wasn't their obligation. Until I paid for my freedom, I was a number. Being stripped of my autonomy, albeit briefly, made me more acutely aware of both my day to day oppression and privilege. For me, this was motivation enough to use my privilege to help end oppression, and marijuana reform felt like a good place to start.

Considering that the movement to legalize marijuana continues to spread (despite Attorney General Jeff Sessions' utter distaste for it), it seems many may view it as a gateway to more sweeping reform. During lunch at Not One Step Back, each table was assigned one of three conversation topics, and one of these was marijuana. The other two, the opioid epidemic and prison reform, provide further insight into both the breadth and depth of the issues DPA confronts.

On one level, the opioid epidemic feels unique in its focus on the abuse of prescription, rather than federally illegal, drugs. It demystifies the image of users by portraying them as people who uphold major social norms and usually play by the rules, so to speak. For some, it will take little effort to draw the connection between users of prescription opioids and users of heroin. However, for others, the starkness of this divide speaks volumes about how deeply people are stigmatized for engaging in behavior perceived as deviant and/or associated with a specific social class.

The medical community enforces this divide via its tendency to over prescribe to one group and in its refusal to adequately treat the other. Once members of the first group develop a clear dependency, they become assimilated (by degrees) into the second group. Meanwhile, a third group of individuals, capable of both exercising and benefiting from, responsible opioid use are given little to no say in a society which insists that users must either be exploited, pitied or shunned. The resulting feeling of hopelessness likely affects many individuals who ultimately use opioids to take their own lives. In this sense, the opioid epidemic may also be seen as evidence of our culture's limited capacity to adequately recognize, treat and accept the reality of mental illness.

While study of both the opioid epidemic and marijuana's history of prohibition each shed light on the role prejudice plays in the drug war, prison reform is the issue which brings this home. This is because understanding the prison industrial complex makes the following clear:

It isn't so much that the criminalization of drugs has led to disproportionate arrests of people of color as it is that the US government needed to justify its arrests of people of color and thus criminalized drugs as a means of achieving its fundamentally racist agenda.

This is why so many of the speakers at Not One Step Back refer to themselves as abolitionists. Slavery within the United States hasn't ended. It has simply changed form. People of color are essentially harvested from their communities daily to fuel an industrial complex which relies on prison populations for cheap labor to sustain a capitalist economy run primarily by rich, white men—who themselves are dehumanized by the very system they lead. The system feeds principally on fear, and the counter to that it not bravery but love. Call it incredibly hokey. This doesn't change its truth.

Yesterday, my husband shared with me the obituary of Nick Sands. In my opinion, it's beautifully written, and I suggest you read it here. We had recently learned about his work as a chemist via the documentary The Sunshine Makers. This documentary focuses on the role Sands and his colleagues played in manufacturing LSD and pioneering an ongoing psychedelic revolution. In The Sunshine Makers, Sands admits to originally thinking that widespread use of LSD would change the world by allowing everyone to transcend their internal barriers to experiencing authentic love. After years of successfully “turning people on,” he remained dedicated to his mission despite openly recognizing its flaws—made evident by the fact that widespread use of LSD failed to bring an end to violence and oppression. Personally, I agree with Sands that LSD (& other drugs) can be useful in sparking real change toward a more loving, authentic, life honoring existence for everyone. Yet, I do not think that the use (or even abuse) of any substance can ever have as much power as the use (and also abuse) of our voices.

DPA does lots of important work. It simplifies the process of alerting our elected officials when drug policy reform is up for debate. It supplies clean syringes and life saving medicines (like Naloxone) to people who need them. Perhaps most importantly, it facilitates meetings like Not One Step Back which give people a forum for sharing their stories and, thereby, creating needed changes to both drug policy and society as a whole. DPA will be returning to Atlanta in October for a comprehensive 3 day long event, and you can register for that here. I will see you there.

Getting in the GROOVE

Albeit not connected to my essay,
I'm sharing this groovy pic of my kids & their friends.

GROOVE feels like air. I read it and could breathe. The stories there reflect neither the popular New Age mindset nor rebel hardcore against it. They feel honest, like solid stepping stones along an uncertain path.

GROOVE recently published an essay I wrote for a collection built around the theme SENSE. My essay, "Sensing the Soul of Things" walks the reader through the beginning of my journey toward understanding Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorder. I'm including a direct link HERE for you to read and enjoy. Meanwhile, click here to contribute to the next issue of GROOVE.