Crying in Public

A week after Thanksgiving, I found myself seated in a cushy, high-tech theater in the center of LA’s Little Tokyo sobbing. Around me, an audience of about 50 listened as a scholar of Japanese mass incarceration and a filmmaker and activist discussed their work. At first, I attributed my inability to stifle the tears running down my cheeks and ruining my mascara placement to hormones and fatigue. But through these two months, I have found myself, well, beside myself, several times.

In that moment, I cried because someone in the audience asked a seemingly simple question to the speakers. Something like, “My grandpa talked about working with some Japanese Americans who were arrested and he took care of their stuff while they were away…did other people do that?” The speakers explained that many people who knew Japanese Americans personally did take care of their homes and belongings while they were away. Another audience member raised their hand and revealed that a series of photographs the filmmaker used in a short film featured a former neighbor. Then, stories started flowing. Children of formerly incarcerated started sharing about their parents’ time in “the camps.” A few veterans talked about feeling inspired by the 442nd Infantry Regiment, the regiment composed almost entirely of Americans with Japanese ancestry. One survivor finally- slowly- revealed his own experience in the camps.

These stories weren’t necessarily sad. In fact, I felt an intense spirit of kinship in the room, as if these folks waited decades to share and finally got the chance. I stopped taking notes like a good scholar and started listening, really listening, through body language and facial expressions and laughter. I think the reason I cried is because that space- one where scholars and activists and folx who might have simply been there to learn or share- were all essential to the conversation. That is the space I want to inhabit and create in whatever kind of work I do.

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The pop-up Planetarium

This past weekend, I found myself beside myself again! This time, over 5,000 people flocked to the Los Angeles Public Library for a Mobile Museum Festival. My partner and I brought along our exhibit materials and kept our eye out for innovative display ideas or stories to include in our exhibit about the religious and inter-religious history of California. We saw a pop-up planetarium (think an upside-down bounce house), a museum of miniatures depicting African American history and culture in America, a set of matchboxes from gay bars, candy wrappers, marionette dolls, indigenous food sources, and a feminist book wagon. We also saw a massive iguana and a tarantula that made me itch. I felt my impulse to cry when we crowded into a packed room full of sports memorabilia- the California Sneaker Museum. The display cases were cracked. Some of the posters looked slightly tacky. The table cloths revealed a few stains and fray. But the imperfections of the accessories fell in silence compared to the objects and the stories they held. Magic Johnson’s sneakers. The founder of the museum is a sports enthusiast and has been collecting objects and stories for over 20 years. He is a scholar of popular culture- and his mission is to share his work and passion with anyone who will stop and look.

I think we have moved beyond the false notion that scholarship should be objective and emotionless, as if our sources demand we put our humanity aside for more authentic understanding. While it is true that biases and our own experiences can shape what we think and how we study, I can’t imagine not “feeling” as I interact with them. How could I not be heartbroken upon reading a letter from an incarcerated Buddhist priest, who begged the government to grant him freedom so he could return to the religious community he served for over 35 years only to find the building sold and condemned after his seven-year internment? Or courage, looking at the old photographs of the first Sikh woman Mayor in the US and her journey as a sexual assault survivor? I don’t mean to say we should make value judgments on our sources- this often shadows the authenticity of them by projecting false context- but that we are missing a key aspect of research if our own emotions go unchecked, or worse, are stifled. So, I’ll keep crying, and laughing, and finding spaces where my work is a compliment to the stories waiting to be shared.

 

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3, 2, 1…2018, You’re Done!

Alright, 2018. As Nicole Byers would say, “ya done!” I think it’s difficult to say whether this year was “good” because there were some direly terrible, awful moments. And, I feel thankful for several people and communities that worked against all odds and supported one another. Despite the heartbreaking news we encounter every day, I do want to shout out the people that made good happen. Think about the activists, writers, teachers, artists, religious leaders, small business owners, athletes, entertainers, and others who took the time to teach and to listen. Especially people of color, women, queer and trans folx, disabled folx, immigrants, and folx whose native language is not English. To everyone who truly learned from their mistakes, that’s awesome.

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I saw so many awesome achievements and fearless actions, including a friend’s recent trip to the border to protest. Two close friends got engaged and another friend took a backpack to travel the world. Another friend finished a masters degree and got a sick job. And another started teaching Spanish and has been asked several times to be a model teacher for others just starting. My students improved their writing and one won a national championship. Scholars I admire wrote books that called out white supremacy, racism and sexism through their work and encouraged me to do the same. I witnessed pain, anger, frustration, loss, and the subsequent fight to find some joy despite it all.

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Before I offer my (partial) list of yays and face palms and resolutions, I want to reflect on one thing. I’ve seen many end of the year messages and posts that suggest we should cut people out of our lives who are toxic, that we must let go of those who are not ready to love us, and that those who cannot appreciate us for our flaws need to go home. I completely agree with these messages, and I wonder how, in this new year, we can hold more accountability for ourselves too. I struggled- I mean STRUGGLED- this year with balancing how to hold space for a friend or colleague or family member who needed to dump their emotions and saying no to holding that space because I didn’t have the capacity. How do we work through our own stuff while utilizing our support networks without emotionally dumping? This year I want to explore accountability of emotions. I think through my own work, I can be a better support and resource for my people.

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Yays:

-Met so many amazing people working to end the suffering of others

-Finished my first year in a PhD program when I said so many times I couldn’t

-Received three grants and launched Golden State Sacred, our project documenting the religious history of California

-Finished a tough mudder

-Presented for the first time at several conferences- and most importantly, lived into the nerves!

-Saw my body as strong and deserving, rather than overweight and lacking

-Got to be on an awesome podcast with one of my academic and activist heroes, and realized that I value a commitment to learning and listening perhaps more than anything

-Published a short story, an article, and a few contributions to publications I really believe in

-Learned so much about my home state through the graciousness of communities and individuals who helped me

-Helped create a public history project that brought scholars, artists and activists together

-Spent time with my family and my best friends, even if it meant I stayed up real late finishing my work to be at the Coliseum or Dodger Stadium

-Took student feedback seriously and improved my teaching (and got really lovely student reviews)

-Asked for help when I needed it (and definitely need to keep working on this one)

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Face Palms (not really. But I think being vulnerable and sharing mistakes is really helpful):

-Exhibited stubborn behavior when I should have listened and acknowledged that my actions were harmful, especially as a white woman

-Stayed silent when I needed to speak out

-Took my frustration out on baristas and other workers when it was entirely not their fault my day was not going the way I wanted

-Failed to tell my therapist a few things right away because I felt shame

-Missed opportunities to communicate with people I don’t get to see or talk to every day (forgetting to text back)

-Let guilt guide my actions instead of letting go and stating my needs

-Lived into the narrative that I am not smart enough or qualified for academia because my path is different

-Allowed the patriarchy to get me down

 

My Resolutions:

-Exhibit ally behavior for indigenous and disabled individuals and communities and appreciate when someone takes the time to teach me.

-Write fearlessly.

-Tell people when I don’t have emotional capacity to hold space (and, recognize my own issues in asking for space).

-Treat my body as a gift that deserves care- instead of working out as punishment, treating working out as a gift of time, stress relief and celebration.

-Communicate more directly (even if it seems mean).

-Put my body and words on the line for the communities that do not hold the privilege I do.

-Build relationships without using English as a medium.

-Keep baking.

-Tell my friends and family when they do something fantastic.

Happy New Year, y’all! May the internet continue to save us in humor and real talk.

 

 

Asking

Many folx cite “asking for help” as one of the hardest things to do, regardless of the circumstances. I hate asking for help. But it’s not because I feel proud or courageous. In fact, asking for help scares me.

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Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash

Something happened to my back yesterday- have you ever felt so much pain you can’t stand up straight, it takes you over five minutes just to will yourself to sit because your muscles are DEFINITELY tearing, you know they are, the agony is so real and you just want to sit in the car for goodness sake. The person screaming yesterday was me. My entire upper back felt like braided string cheese smushed so tightly in the plastic packaging. I could barely walk, let alone carry a grocery bag. In a perfect world, I would have teleported home so as not to disturb anyone’s fun. But I was out with some friends, wandering the aisles in a Korean grocery store in San Jose, and I had to ask for help.

First, I needed help carrying a bottle of vodka. Don’t judge. It was on sale and finals week is coming up. I couldn’t carry it through the store, so I asked one of the friends with me to hang on until checkout. Next, everyone patiently waited by the car as I crawled, muttering to myself, “a few more steps. That’s it. Just a few more. One foot, the other.” As I mentioned, getting in to the car (and the front seat, which I tried to demand I didn’t need) had me wondering if I could walk home because the pain upon bending my legs made me nauseous. Our classmate in the driver’s seat insisted that I couldn’t simply go home. So, the four of us embarked on an adventure.

I felt vulnerable and guilty. Here were three graduate students accompanying me for my own damn problem, something that didn’t affect them save hearing my groaning. I refused everything they suggested at each different point, only to succumb to their insistence. And I started wondering why I couldn’t just let these three wonderful people take care of me.

Many of the students in the sections I teach utilize me as a teaching assistant very well. They send outlines, rough drafts, even crap I don’t know how to label, and I respond within twenty four hours as a personal rule. I hate sending my work in progress to others. I hate it because it scares me to show people my process and thus, my imperfections. While I don’t call myself a “perfectionist,” I realized that this fear of showing the work behind the product comes from not wanting to admit a period of uncertainty. Yesterday, I couldn’t stand the fact that these helpful, kind and caring people could actually express their care for me because it meant showing my pain before I can show off how well I heal.

When I worked as a chaplain, my colleagues and I often talked about modeling good human behavior. What we meant was allowing our students to see that we do make mistakes, muddle through problems we don’t understand, and we work to improve. I will always hate asking for help because I will always fight the negative voice in my head calling me a fraud. Maybe that voice isn’t always a bad thing- it’s the worst of any criticism. Maybe it’s ok to sit in the front seat once in a while.

No More Guitar Circles

“Rough patch” is a phrase I’ve been holding lately. My world feels troubled at best and literally on fire at worst. This week as I watched out the Air Canada window and recognized that sense of peace when all you can see is mountains, ocean, and a completely blue sky, I felt thankful to be home. Then within a blink, the fires came. The forest fires. The gunfire. The worst fire, the one of complacency, more thoughts and prayers, more false blame. I realized this week that I am angry.

I am angry at people who won’t own up to their shit.

I am angry at people who put others down because they don’t understand and won’t be bothered to learn or accept what they don’t know.

I am angry at all the systems of oppression that dominated in the election. To be sure, we saw some great victories.

And, I’m angry at myself. For letting all of this loom over me like a dark cloud. Like the clouds above me in my beloved home state.

I did go to the Bata Shoe Museum, and that was awesome. Here are some Manolos.

Honestly the last month has felt just wrong. Lonely, unmotivated, overwhelmed, tired, frustrated, just “off.” I could write all the things that made me want to crawl under my blankets (and did, on occasion), but as a dear friend said, “you’ve been shaken, you can name that, and you’ve got this. Choose joy”

I spent the last week in Toronto at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, a gathering of over 6000 scholars, activists, writers, artists, and general enthusiasts of this interfaith gathering. The Parliament first took place in 1893 in Chicago at the Columbia Exhibition and looked MUCH different from today. In 1893, the organizers structured the conference so that by the end, the attendees- religious and spiritual leaders from around the world, mostly men- should conclude of their own minds that Protestant Christianity spoke the ultimate truth and rightness. Today, the organizers create a space for learning, with many limitations- most all the presentations are in English, religion continues to mean variations of White American Protestantism, a majority of attendees come from the United States and Canada, and a sense of “Kumbaya” still permeates the public spaces. Think guitar circles at every turn.

This year, I hung with the “Next Generation folks” to see old friends and meet some new. And I realized that I am not the only one who is angry, frustrated, and feeling like I’m not doing enough.

Through informal knowledge, we learned that over a third of Parliament attendees are under the age of 35. I saw some inspiring conversations among these folks- difficult discussions about racism at the Parliament, a critique of the Women’s space that really shouldn’t be open to everyone, and overwhelmingly, a desire to DO something beyond meet and drink and follow each other on Twitter.

One of these “young” people (I don’t dare share his age, but he is over 35) shared a message that I found myself struggling to both acknowledge and critique. Dr. Patel, Founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and a long-time friend, spoke at the University of Toronto Multifaith Centre’s 10th Anniversary Party and declared the missing link in the interfaith movement. “We aren’t doing interfaith leadership if we’re not working and talking with people who disagree.” Later, in a meaningful and intellectual conversation, Dr. Patel asked me a question. “What good does it do to tell someone they are oppressed? Why not instead tell them they have power and agency?” I found myself nodding- he’s right, in a way. I also found myself scratching my head. How do I- a teacher, a scholar, someone privileged in identity and with the ability to access and organize knowledge- how do I tell my students they have power when so many struggle to succeed in a system that wasn’t built for them?

I must note that my students do live in immense privilege- if nothing besides the access they receive to knowledge. At the same time, we do need to acknowledge that this call to action represents a degree of male-ness in terms of safety and power. The male-ness of this approach is to assume that power is equally internalized and upheld externally. Not just by fellow students, but by the constructs of learning and living in this university context. I suggest that my role is not to determine who students are at all- my role is to teach them how to build a community together, one inherently unequal, but one in which they can learn to be of service to one another. This is something we- the Next Generation, the angry, the frustrated- can learn and share.

Dumping

I saw a great Tweet recently. It really captured something I have been struggling with for the past year or so. The Tweet said (and I paraphrase): it’s fine to process with friends sometimes, and to listen when a friend is in need. However, a friend is not a therapist, and certainly doesn’t get paid to be one. In a nutshell, don’t dump too much emotional baggage on people- it’s not their responsibility, and it can be quite taxing.

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Photo by Aaron Barnaby on Unsplash

There are of course layers to this- therapy is expensive. It isn’t accessible to everyone, to most. Therapy doesn’t work for all, and a majority of therapists are white and cisgender, which is important to note because people of color and trans folx especially experience much more difficulty accessing a good therapist if they have the resources in the first place. That is not to say therapists must share all life experiences with their patients, but it is to say therapists are people and have limits.

What I am struggling with is taking on the emotional dump for a particular group of people- cishet white men. I am struggling because it is my burden and I want to own that. At the same time, I find some of their “confidential” complaints problematic. Further, when confronting the problems, the response I receive is often one of outrage and gas lighting.  As in, “I just wanted to complain, I don’t need advice,” or “You’re not listening, you’re being condescending.” Their complaints are about a felt “oppression” because of who they are. While I can’t fight feelings, I can correct the false narratives that lead to these feelings- one of these narratives is that “white people aren’t given positions of power anymore.” So, what is the balance between listening to a fellow white person when they absolutely should not be airing these unfounded grievances on people of color, and struggling against the exhaustion of fighting this emotional labor handed off to women and non-men?

Giving up is not an option, because that would invite two different scenarios. The first is perceived agreement- allowing these bullshit complains to seem valid just solidifies their position of unchecked privilege. Ignoring them and demanding they take their problems elsewhere is also unhelpful, because then someone else is burdened. I’m working on developing more skills to confront without feeling emotionally wrecked after a thirty minute conversation, but this question interests me.

I think beyond working on stamina skills there is a fundamental point of view that needs to change. It is very related to this popular quote that has taken 1000 iterations, something like “Equality feels like oppression when you’re in a position of privilege.” The reality is, as we work toward equity and eventually liberation, privilege needs to be dismantled. It’s ok to be passed over for a job despite having the proper qualifications. It’s ok to not have the mic or be the face of an office or a movement. The reality still is that white folx will demand positions of power and more air time, and continue to espouse a narrative that allows us to claim oppression. Another reality is that white men will continue to dump these feelings on non-men unless other men learn how to listen and hold each other accountable. I think the most dangerous position is to be in one without introspection.

Don’t Overreact to Little Things

I’m definitely not saying anything in this post that has not been said before. It’s been said many times, it’s been said recently, it’s definitely been said today. Like five minutes ago. Because most likely, someone didn’t listen. And not listening meant upholding patriarchy and continuing to allow dehumanization and violence toward women. Toward womxn. Toward survivors and victims. I’ve heard excuse after excuse and experienced literal yelling over social media. I’ve gotten dismissive, unthoughtful responses like, “there is no evidence, so how can we know who is telling the truth?” or “think about his situation and how hard this is for him.” Consider: why would someone lie about trauma- especially knowing full well the absolute storm of disgusting responses you will receive?

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Photo by Evan Brockett on Unsplash

On the other hand, the sarcasm and sass on the internet gives me just a little bit more life. “Maybe he should smile more. Maybe he shouldn’t have worn that and he wouldn’t be accused.” ABSOLUTE GOLD. It makes me laugh so hard because it hits so directly on what women have been saying over and over in so many intelligent, patient, “civil” ways (I hate that word). It’s funny because it sounds SO stupid! And yet- advocating for the rights and innocence of someone who commits assault is SO stupid. And it is happening every minute.

So why won’t they listen?

I’m going to share a story that is not meant to equate experiences with race and gender or experience of violence. This is only to illuminate a point. I remember, before engaging in racial justice and what we usually call “diversity” work how defensive I could feel when someone called me out. Especially if they used the term “racist.” Because even though no one told me that I, as an entire human, was a racist, I associated racist behavior with being a racist, which I knew to be very bad. I did not want to be a very bad person, so I shut down a few times. I got defensive and didn’t listen or learn anything. And that was a shame, because the folx telling me truth were offering a huge gift- a gift they had no responsibility to give, that probably contributed further to baggage and eliminated a potential future ally. That is- I eliminated myself from that, and caused harm. I knew I was complicit. I didn’t want to admit it.

This is aimed not so much at abusers and perpetrators- y’all can honestly rot for all I care- this is for the people who are defending the abusers and perpetrators. The people who “can’t believe her without evidence.” The folx who want to cite some completely false statistics that more women and womxn are lying about assault now so they’re ruining other “real” survivors experiences by creating a girl-who-cried-wolf-scenario. This behavior is why interrupting and catcalling and booty calls and excusing terrible behavior and assault and rape happen ALL THE TIME. This is perpetuating rape culture. It’s not only excusing the event but denying any agency when someone bravely comes forward. I want to emphasize this because I honestly had a stronger reaction to 45 mocking someone who did the best she could to tell her story than a rapist acting like an angry child. Perpetuating allows behavior to continue. Perpetuating= complicity. It’s like telling someone’s fortune, except it’s invoking future trauma.

So. I’m coming out strong to say that if you tell me your story of trauma and survival, I believe you. Thank you to those who listened to and believed me. I am working on checking my own actions that perpetuate.

Fat

I’ve written about my struggles with weight before. They’ll never go away. Since engaging on social media, it has become glaringly apparent that every woman- and perhaps every person- struggles with body image. How could we not? The health and fitness and food industries make up multi-billion dollar sectors. Not to mention pharmaceuticals and healthcare.

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Photo by Elena Koycheva on Unsplash

So, I want to share a little bit about my struggles and comment on how widespread fatphobia and fat-shaming are. First- I am not “fat.” Of course there is no standard, but I live with what we might call “thin” privilege. I am not thin, but I can generally fit into a clothing size at most stores. I can afford healthy food like fresh vegetables, and even to bake for fun. Perhaps the biggest privilege I have is time- time to cook once or twice a week, time to work out. I used to work as a personal trainer, and learned how to “eat real food,” “burn fat through High Intensity Interval Training,” and in general “live a fulfilling and healthy life.” As if our bodies could determine how we feel about our worth- and they often do.

The time in my adult life when I weighed the least was during my first full time job as a college chaplain. I busied myself with work- staying long hours, working out early in the morning, making almost all of the food that I ate each day. Work was overwhelming. On most days I didn’t eat lunch until 4, and then I was full for dinner. Admittedly, it improved my confidence. My clothes fit. I didn’t worry as much about keeping my arms close to my body when someone took a picture so they wouldn’t look huge. But I never once said “this is enough. I feel content with my body.”

When I was 14, a doctor told me my throat was closing and not allowing me to swallow food because I was overweight. She even offered a medical explanation. It took five years to discover, after working to lose weight and still having issues with swallowing, that the problem stemmed from a soy allergy. But the humiliation remained- I was fat and I hated myself. A professor once told me doctors are the best salespeople- we trust them, even if their recommendations cost us thousands of dollars and life-long shame.

I started reading a new article  called “Everything You Know About Obesity is Wrong” by Michael Hobbes. The first parts, mainly describing the history of discrepancy between known health issues and policy change made me pause. Then I started bawling. It was the story about a mom who attends a kid’s birthday party every week and didn’t eat in front of the other moms or kids because she is fat that brought on the tears. She waits to clean up all the leftovers, takes them home, and when her kids go to bed, she finally eats. No one watching. She replaces an entire tub of ice cream so no one will know she ate the whole thing because she’s a “good fatty.” I’ve done that- I’ve hidden food, stashed it, and looked forward to it- my secret. And the next day, I workout twice as long to “burn off the sin,” promising that I will have more willpower, that I’d rather fit into my clothes than eat the cupcake, and somehow will feel better about my life if all of this goes to plan. It never does. I love to bake- I’m really good at it, and in my work where there are no “answers,” it feels great to make something the right way.

I know my experience is probably quite normal. Because fat-shaming is normal and we do not talk about it, except to complain to each other about our own weight and subsequently assure each other that we’re wrong. It is not acceptable to accept someone’s assessment of their own weight because the weight itself is not acceptable. Especially as women, we must continually strive to be less so we can have more.

“I am unlovable.” Have you ever, even subconsciously, thought or felt this? A particularly toxic consequence of fat-shaming is this notion that our weight and body determine who can care for us. Unfortunately, I have witnessed that people treat me differently even within a seven-pound spectrum. Largely, people who live with thin-privilege also live with access to a public legitimacy- no one questions their abilities, habits, lifestyle, or drive as a fat person would experience.

I don’t have an answer yet except to start talking openly with one another about “fatness” as a permanent identity, not one that we can change. Losing weight never changes the constant fear of a “lapse,” or going back to “who we were.” Body-positivity is great, but not enough to truly explore the constant shame that comes with “being fat.” And talking about this kind of identity without openly exploring how race, gender, ability, CLASS (!!!), nation of origin, mental health and other identities interact with the body as a marker will do no good. Size is an identity, one of many a person holds.

One helpful thing I do is try to recognize when I feel shame about my body because chances are, I can change my own behavior toward others if I am more aware. I’m going to keep baking because it’s something I love to do. Cupcakes anyone?