Essays

Gratitude, A Photo Journal: Brain-Picking Becky #14

I just can’t with the news this week – so much violence, anger, fear, greed. I decided that rather than focusing on how awful our world leaders are, I needed to take a break from current events and focus my energy on the little things in my day-to-day life that make me grateful. In the past, avoiding the news felt like I was being irresponsible, neglecting my duties as a citizen, but now, taking the space I need to focus on gratitude seems like the best way to resist the hatred and negativity that’s spreading through our country, our world, like a disease. It’s a lot easier for me to be kind to others and treat them with respect and compassion when I’m feeling full of gratitude, and kindness, respect, and compassion are exactly what this world needs more of right now. So whether you continue to tune into the news or not, I strongly encourage you to also tune into the grateful wavelength. It might take some reminding at first, but we are all capable of making this choice and sticking with it. Here are some photos and thoughts to hopefully get you started.

IMG_1027I very much appreciate green things growing out of rocks. I also appreciate the sound of lapping water and my silly/awesome star tattoos and the way sunshine feels on my
bare feet.

IMG_1019There is beauty everywhere if we allow ourselves to see it, even in steel and machines and concrete. I also love the fact that five different countries were represented on this single subway car; NYC is proof that people from all of the world can live together in harmony.

IMG_1024From the subway to the bay to the ocean. My commute is special. When I look out at this body of water that goes on and on until it reaches another continent where someone of a different race and a different language is, like me, staring into its depths, I feel grateful that I am so small yet also connected to something so tremendous.

IMG_1016Not everyday can be sunny. And that’s okay; I appreciate a gray sky and the smell of rain and the sound it makes as it falls against my umbrella.

Okay, I confess it’s perhaps ridiculous to have this many animals in a Brooklyn apartment, yet at the same time, it’s magical. I love my little menagerie and I love being loved by them. I greatly appreciate that we all make it work.

IMG_1059And, of course, this boy. Every day I am grateful for him; becoming a mom is the most incredible and rewarding thing I have ever done.

BeckyLewCryingAlso, the craziest. But I’m grateful for the imperfect moments, too, for the screams and the exhaustion and the ink stains on towels. I’m glad that life is complicated.

IMG_1077And I’m glad that in the midst of these complications, we find opportunities to relax and reflect. As a child I dreamed of something different than the cow farms and cul-de-sacs I grew up with, and now here I am thriving in New York City. May all people have a dream and the gumption to go for it.

IMG_1084And may all people also have the luxury of a summer afternoon with Prosecco, good friends, and a beautiful view.

Click here to learn more about the ongoing column Brain-Picking Becky.

Brain-Picking Becky #13: How We Tell (and Edit) Our Stories

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the micro memoir. I’m a wordy writer (and person in general), and I typically fall victim to over-explaining my ideas in an effort to be extra sure that what I’m trying to say is understood. This often results in clunky sentences and unnecessary repetition, not to mention how time-consuming it is. When I edit both my fiction and nonfiction, I try hard to channel my inner Hemingway and delete, delete, delete. Focus on the power of what is left unsaid. Except I’m bad at leaving things unsaid.

I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about the way we tell our stories, the choices we make when it comes to mood and tone, the language we use silently in our minds versus the language we share with our mouths and our fingers. So much of how we see the world, our place in it, ourselves in general, is our own choice, and this is so deeply affected by the way we frame our own stories. Yet how much of this framing really is our choice? How much of our personal narrative comes from our parents, their parents, and their parents? How much comes from early childhood memories we don’t remember but feel like we remember because our family has remembered them for us? From our genetic makeup, from the makeup of our neighborhoods, from the makeup we put on before we go out into the world?

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Last year, Lew loved the ocean water. He would run into it and shout with glee, jump, splash, run away, run back. This summer, he is two-years-old and has developed the capacity to fear. Now when he goes close to the water, he freezes and screams, partly playful, mostly afraid. He loves it when I carry him in, he’ll beg me to go deep enough that the waves splash against his delicious round belly, yet he clings to me so tightly that I can let go of him and he doesn’t even slip down my torso. The other day, as he and I were digging holes in the sand and filling them up again, my friend asked me if Lew liked the water and I said, “Oh he loves it but he’s also scared of it. It’s a new development this year, I hope it doesn’t last long.” Later that afternoon, Lew and I walked to the shore hand-in-hand and then right when we approached the ocean’s edge, he stopped, scrunched his nose and eyes together, reached his arms to me and cried, “Mommy, up, up, I scared of ocean water!” He had never used the word scared before.

In thinking about my story, Lew’s story, the story of my family and the tiny pieces that come together to make up these stories, I am deeply grateful for all the things I get to experience. Yet at the same time, I am deeply exhausted. An editor might say that my story is going in too many directions and needs to be pared down.

Leave more unsaid.

I’m reminded of Rivka Galchen’s book Little Labors, a beautiful, unique collection of short essays about new motherhood. I feel like these snippets, these micro memoirs, capture the reality of our existence so well. In the end, isn’t life really just little pieces of memory put together and called a whole?

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Click here to learn more about the ongoing column Brain-Picking Becky.

“Writing in the Digital Age” – My New Online Class Starts Monday!

I’m so excited to start my new online class, Writing in the Digital Age: Blogging, Social Media, & More, through Writers & Books, the amazing nonprofit in Rochester. Classes start this Monday the 31st, and it’s not too late to register – spread the word!

Writing in the Digital Age: Blogging, Social Media, & More (Online)

blogging

Instructor(s): Becky Fine-Firesheets

Beginner Beginner Beginner

In the digital era, writers are no longer afforded the luxury of focusing solely on creation; agents and publishers are now seeking sellability in addition to quality. This four-part class will concentrate on creating and maintaining a writer’s blog (parts 1 and 2), developing your social media presence (part 3), and general self-promotion (part 4), with a focus on efficiency and affordability.

REGISTER ONLINE NOW.

If you would like to make a request for any accommodation, please email us at accommodation@wab.org.

Photo “blogging” by Eden Osabel / Creative Commons

Brain-Picking Becky #12: On Daughterhood

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As I drove my compact rental car from CVG to my hometown, I counted the ins and outs of my breath – a mostly useless effort to calm my anxiety. In just a few days, a surgeon I didn’t know would cut into my dad’s chest, splay open his breastbone, attach a new valve to his heart and then sew him back up. There was a small chance Dad wouldn’t wake up from it. I doubted my ability to fully support him, to give him what he needed from me, to stay patient enough to manage both his and my anxieties without exploding and yelling at him. I worried about seeing him knocked out on drugs, hooked up to tubes. I’d taken this trip by myself (because of logistical reasons, my husband and son weren’t able to come along), and I felt deeply alone. Legs shaking, heart racing, I sped down I-75 and lamented the reality of growing older, of how responsibilities seem to add up while carefreeness seems to vanish. And then, a momentous thought popped into my brain: Becky, be grateful. You GET to do this for your dad. You didn’t get to do this for your mom.

This thought not only dulled my anxiety but also allowed me to reframe the entire experience. Sure, Dad’s surgery was yet another difficult thing my family had to navigate, another obligation added to my already full plate, another anxious-making strain on my mind and body, but it was also an opportunity to demonstrate my love for him, to give back some of the support he’s given me throughout the years, to show him how strong and capable I’ve become. I didn’t have this opportunity with my mother, I didn’t get to share in her old age and all the struggles that come along with that. You get to do this for him.

And really, shouldn’t we frame every experience like this? We get to do this life, all of it, the challenging parts, sad parts, light parts, confusing parts. It’s beautiful that we get to grow older. It’s beautiful that we get to take on responsibilities like being there for our parents as they age. It’s beautiful that we get to be alive.

These realizations enabled me to let go of the expectations I tend to bring to family visits (a problem I wrote about back in Brain-Picking #4) and enter a place of peace and relaxation, a place that was absolutely necessary for achieving the Herculean task of keeping my cartoon character of a father from overtaxing his heart before surgery. And when I say cartoon character, I mean it; my dad is unique in the way unreal, animated people are unique. For example, the surgery was actually delayed by ten days because, even though he was blacking out from lack of oxygen, he still continued his part-time yard work jobs in the hot Kentucky summer, decided to show a friend what a patch of poison ivy looks like, and ended up with the worst infection of his life. He went to a doctor who put him on steroids, and then the very next day, he climbed up a ladder to fix someone’s gutter and FELL OFF. So yeah, heart surgery was delayed.

This behavior isn’t unusual; my dad is absolutely the busiest person I’ve ever met. He also talks literally nonstop, even if the other person is vacuuming or on the phone or behind a closed door. While this level of vigor and chattiness can be fun and entertaining, it can also be draining. Add anxiety about open-heart surgery to the mix, and that shit got bonkers. We spent three days before the surgery together and by night one, I’d given up on telling him to sit down and let me take care of things and instead tried to preemptively guess what task he might set about completing and then beat him to it (this was fairly effective except for outliers like his scrubbing the inside of the oven at 9pm one night). I also definitely texted my friend on day three about how I was looking forward to his being on anesthesia. But still, we had fun; we haven’t had that much one-on-one time since at least a decade ago when I first started bringing Dave around, and while it was intense, it was truly wonderful. Reframing the visit through the perspective of just being grateful for the time I had with him, no matter what that time ended up being like, was a game-changer, and it actually brought a new sense of calmness that affected both of us. This perspective also created a necessary emotional distance for me; I didn’t take things as personally this visit, I didn’t get as bothered or upset as in the past. And it was absolutely fascinating to observe my dad from this space as opposed to the more sensitive spaces of before. Really, he and I are so similar. Through watching and listening to him without feeling so affected by everything, I gained such an interesting insight into myself and also into my son – we are all such Firesheets! Genetics is a strange and magical thing.

heart.pngAnyway, my brother came down for the surgery, and after nine hours of lying around the hospital in a weird, glazed-eyed, time/space warp, we got the news that everything had gone as smoothly as it possibly could have. That night, my brother and I ate pizza and drank beer and told stories, also the first time we’d been one-on-one in at least a decade, and I was reminded of all the lovely little things about him that I’ve adored since our childhood. The very next day, Dad was up and walking down the halls, to be released only four days later – his strength and motivation have been utterly impressive. I left Kentucky feeling proud of the three of us as a unit, happy to have come together like that, to have tackled this huge thing while also still genuinely enjoying each other. I also left with a lot of pride in myself; I think I’ve finally figured out how to be my dad’s daughter.

Click here to learn more about the ongoing column Brain-Picking Becky.

Writer’s Note: I edited some typos hours after publishing this piece. Otherwise, I stuck to the rules.

Reaching Beyond the Saguaros

reachingsaugurus

I am thrilled to be included in Serving House Books recent travelogue project based around the concept of home, and I’m especially excited that my short essay was featured alongside the one and only Richard J. O’Brien. Huge thanks to Heather Lang for her amazing editorial work and to David Pischke for his beautiful cover art!

“I come from tobacca, bourbon, bluegrass and born agains, horse farms and meth labs and biscuits with milk gravy.  A land of toothless grins in forgotten towns preserved like defunded museums.  I turned eighteen and fled.

Now, as I sit on a rooftop and stare at the buildings glittering in the sky like the jagged ups-and-downs of my lifeline, I am awe-struck by my own duality: the misplaced Metropolitan returned to her long-lost city / the simple country girl yearning for her woods.  Both a curse and a gift, I’m always home yet never home.”

home saugurs

Brain-Picking Becky #11: Good Morning, Anxiety, Sit Down.

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This has been a profound month for me and my anxiety disorder. Fortunately and unfortunately, there are three big reasons for this. Fortunately because it used to be that my entire existence was one big OCD attack no matter what was going on, so the fact that I only get like this for real reasons now is a great thing; unfortunately because in some ways, it’s easier to deal with generalized anxiety, to convince myself that nothing is wrong, than it is to convince myself not to stress over things that are actually truly wrong.

Trigger #1: My father is having an aortic valve replacement surgery next week, and while it’s a very common procedure with a 99% success rate, we were given the date over a month ago and this kind of waiting period wreaks havoc on the anxious. Trigger #2: My husband’s place of employment is closing on August 9th, and we don’t know what he’ll be doing afterward. He’s experienced, connected, educated, friendly, hardworking – it shouldn’t be difficult for him to get something. But the anxious brain hears the mouth say, “He’ll find a gig, we’re not worried,” and laughs heartily. Trigger #3: The state of affairs in our country right now is overwhelmingly scary and enraging, two emotions, like most emotions, that transform into anxiety inside of me.

It somehow feels childish that I can’t just be a little worried or mad and then set it aside and move on. I feel like I should’ve outgrown anxiety by now, or at least be farther along in the process of dealing with it. But I have to remind myself that this disorder is powerful, mean, and tricky, that it creates these negative, self-critical thoughts in an effort to keep me in its grip. It doesn’t give up easily. But neither do I.

billieholiday“Might as well get used to you hangin’ around.
Good morning, heartache, sit down.” ~Billie Holiday

I started therapy back when I was fifteen-years-old, and throughout all of high school and most of college, my sessions focused on my eating disorder, specifically on cognitive behavioral therapy to retrain my brain surrounding food and not so much on the underlying anxiety. Even when I’d reached a point where I honestly wanted to be healthy and eat like a regular person, my body just wasn’t used to it. I had to wear an ugly, bulky sports watch that did not at all go with my cute hippie skirts, and set multiple alarms that would beep at meal times to remind me to eat. I also had to work on identifying the voice of my eating disorder and separating it from my own voice, then replacing an “Ed” thought with a nicer, more positive one (e.g., Ed: You are so ugly. Me: That’s your eating disorder talking. You are not ugly.) This was a long process. Yes, I wanted to get better, but it was hard to believe my thoughts over Ed’s. In time though, I did it. I distinctly remember a moment from my senior year of college, six years after I’d first started therapy, when I was wiping down the surfaces at the coffee shop I worked in and caught my reflection in the refrigerator door. For the first time in my life I thought, Oh my god, you’re actually pretty. That evening at home in my bedroom, I examined my naked body at length in the mirror and thought, Wow girl, you ARE pretty! And then I burst out crying; past examinations in the mirror had been the exact opposite of this experience. It was a huge leap in my recovery.

Therapists at the time were big on reminding us that we’d have our eating disorders forever and the goal was to manage it and stay healthy, not recover. Jenni Schaefer, a mental health activist who coined the “Ed” concept in her transformative book Life Without Ed, wrote in a later novel of hers, “I would not encourage you to go through the sweat, blood, and tears of the recovery process only to reach some kind of mediocre state where you were just ‘managing’ the illness. It is possible to live without Ed.” I agree with her, especially now that my eating disorder is a decade in my past and I love to cook and eat. But I also still agree with the therapists. Eating disorders tend to develop as a result of other things, like anxiety, depression, or environmental situations, to name a few. Ed is no longer a part of my life, but the obsessive thought loops, the heart racing and stomach churning, the desire to be perfect and make everyone happy, are always there in some capacity. And I would never do something like a juice cleanse; it’s not that my relationship with food is that precarious, but rather that avoiding any kind of cleanse/diet is an offensive move on my part. I know how easily I obsess over things and how easily I act compulsively on these obsessions. I also know how sneaky my disorder is. OCD has an excellent memory. Once it sets in, my whole system reverts backwards; my body seems to like it in a way, like, Yeah, we’re so good at being an anxious mess! It’s familiar, and it tricks me into thinking that because it’s familiar, it’s comforting. In fact, it can set in without my even realizing it. I’ve had many moments where I’m playing catch up, where I find myself furiously scrubbing behind the stove while rapidly repeating the same thought about a conversation I had earlier in the day. Then I stop myself all like, Dude, it’s 11 pm, why are you doing this? What are you actually upset about? There are also other moments where I’m fully aware of the trigger and the progression of the process, but my efforts to stop it are slower than the OCD’s efforts and I end up in the midst of it all despite my awareness. And then there are moments where I succeed before it sets in (high five!). So, when I say that I agree with both Jenni Schaefer and the therapists, I mean that I’ve recovered from anorexia, I no longer focus on my food intake or my thoughts surrounding food, but OCD, the underlying reason for my anorexia, is like high blood pressure – I will never “recover” from it but instead will always be managing it.

meincollege (1)Me in college. Cheers!

This thought is actually encouraging, believe it or not. I’m fairly good at dealing with anxiety by this point – my awareness of it has increased exponentially, I’m familiar with many effective techniques (meditation and acupuncture being the two most useful), I have a wonderful support network, and, most importantly, I’m not as scared of it as I used to be. It still frightens me sometimes, but I’m able to recognize that even this fear is a part of the disorder and that my job is to simply chill out about it. I’ve come up with a new mantra that I really love: Just let yourself be okay. I feel like this responds to all aspects of my anxiety, the over-analyzing, the worrying, the intrusive thoughts, the expectations and criticism. I don’t need to be perfect or always joyful or on the up-and-up in every aspect of my life. Even in the middle of an anxiety attack, I am okay. Just let yourself be okay.

So what does anxiety actually look like for me? On a day-to-day basis, I experience only very mild symptoms that don’t affect my life at all, like I get startled easily and my heart swooshes and sinks into my stomach and then races for a few seconds before going back to normal. Most often it doesn’t phase me; I’m used to it by now, and for this I am grateful, to myself, my therapists, my practitioners, teachers, friends and family – getting to this point took a lot from a lot of people. I’m also able to see how my OCD brain can be a huge boon to my life; it gives me motivation and energy, allows me to productively analyze and act accordingly across various situations, and enables me to multi-task effectively. But the spells are a different story, and while I’m grateful they only happen for specific reasons nowadays, they’re still very challenging.

And this is where my frustration comes in. Anxiety is a hot topic in the media, Twitter, even fiction right now, yet most people don’t actually understand what it really means to live with it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad people are talking about it. But I want people to see it and get it, not just talk about it. Therefore, I feel compelled (haha) to describe it for you, so here’s my attempt at explaining a recent morning.

5 am. Your heart swooshes and sinks, waking you up with a jerk. It’s racing and pounding against your chest as if you’ve just finished sprinting. Your throat is tight and you’re having trouble breathing. A short gasp. No, no, don’t gasp, you’ve got this. Breathe in deeply, it’s hard, you’re still gasping, that’s okay, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. Your heart is slowing down now. You’re fine, try to sleep.

7 am. You shoot up to a sitting position, heart racing. The baby is awake and screaming from his room, “Mommy, get up!” Breathe in, breathe out, slow down your heart. You love his little voice. Just listen to it for a minute. Such a wonderful sound. Now go squeeze him. You feel a little nauseous as you walk to his room, so you reflexively do that weird tic cough thing that drives you crazy (it’s so strange and it doesn’t even help the nausea, why do you do that?). No, you’re fine, just let yourself be okay. Breathe in, relax your neck. Remember how in college you used to throw up every morning on your walk to class? How you knew all the trees on campus with trunks thick enough to hide behind so no one would see you? You’ve come a long way. Don’t be mean to yourself. Mornings are the hardest and you’re strong. Be here, be present, get out of your head and just be with this little creature and all this love. Also, you actually fell back asleep for a bit, so that’s a win.

7:15 am. Why did your Facebook comment piss her off? You were just trying to help. Women should not turn on each other so easily. If we don’t support each other, who will? Should you reply? Yes, you have to. No, no, don’t, it’s dumb, you don’t even know this person.

Your heart is racing again. Get off the phone and focus on your kid who’s so patiently reading a book by himself while you waste time on this bullshit.

LewReading
7:25 am
. Why did your Facebook comment piss her off? You were just trying to help. Women should not turn on each other so easily. If we don’t – Stop it, you
’re thought looping, and your heart is now pounding in your throat and you feel nauseous again. Don’t cough, it doesn’t help.

Wait, when did you even pick up your phone again? Just reply and be done with it.

7:35 am. Why did your comment piss her off? You were just trying to help. Women should not turn on each other so easily. 

Stop the loop. Slow down your heart. Breathe.

Why did your comment piss her off?

Stop it stop it stop it!

You shouldn’t have replied. Should you check for a response?

NO, YOU IDIOT!

And seriously, do not look at the news right now. Don’t do it. It will only make things worse. Don’t you dare do it. Put the phone down NOW.

7:40 am. Oh come on, “Meh, whatever,” is the best reply that asshat could come up with in response to your very understanding reply? Your heart is pounding in your face now. This is fucking stupid. Why do people have to be so mean? Women should not turn on each other so easily. If we don’t support each other, who will?

PUT DOWN YOUR PHONE AND GET OUT OF THE APARTMENT RIGHT NOW.

But you haven’t packed anything, and now you’re walking frantically around the living room picking up objects you don’t need, and Lew thinks it’s a game and is laughing, and you wish it were just a game, and now you’re shaking.

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7:45 am. Hooray, you have successfully straightened every single knick-knack on every shelf while simultaneously singing songs with Lewis. Now you get to enjoy the peace and calm of an apartment filled with straightened objects! Except that your heart is racing again. Because this has absolutely nothing to do with Facebook or women or having an organized home. Really this is about Dad. You simply can’t lose another parent right now, you cannot become an orphan. 

Ugh, why do you have to go to the most morbid place imaginable? What is wrong with you? 

Shit, you’re nauseous again. Sit down. Breathe in, breathe out. Everything is going to be fine.

HA! You wish. No seriously, it is reasonable to assume it will all be fine. But you know what’s not reasonable? Losing both of your parents before you turn 33. You could deal with it, you have to, you have a kid and you have Dave and your writing and your music. You could write and sing through the pain, maybe even help someone else deal with their grief.

Come on, don’t be so dramatic. No one is dying. It’s like, a statistical improbability. Your neck is so tense is hurts. Relax a little, let yourself be okay.

7:50 am. So, you just texted like, ten people to see what they’re doing today. You cannot hang out with ten people today. You also somehow read three books out loud to Lewis while sending those texts. Wait, did you make any typos? Go back and reread them.

No. Get outside! It always helps to just get outside. Grab the bag and go – it doesn’t matter what you’ve packed.

7:55 am. Excellent work! Those books Lew ripped yesterday are now all nice and neatly taped up, and look at how happy he is reading them! I can’t believe it took you so long to repair them. Anyway, what can you do next? Yes, prop up the stove and clean around the burners, you love doing that.

todolist
8:00 am
. Beautiful! The stove is cleaned and also you made a to-do list with 36 items for your week off of work, including ‘shower’ just in case you forget. But that’s silly because you love showering. Cross it out. No, don’t cross it out, you haven’t done it yet! Oh and also, you
 haven’t applied for that tutoring job, don’t forget to add that to the list.

Ahhhhhh, what the hell are we gonna do if Dave doesn’t have a job come September?

Heart swoosh, sink, throb throb throb.

Oh no, your eyes are glazing over, you’re doing that thing where you’re pulling away again, where it feels like there’s an immeasurable distance between you and your surroundings, where you have trouble interpreting other people’s body language and expressions and then just analyze it all on repeat. You’re getting dizzy, your throat and chest are tight tight tight. Don’t do this, don’t float away. Lew finished his puzzle. Put him in the stroller, get outside. You are fine. Just let yourself be okay.

8:05 am. Phew. We did it. But you’re walking really fast. And dammit, you forgot that you have to move the car today!

Swoosh, sink, thump.

Dude, seriously? Your heart’s doing its whole thing over something as simple as moving the car later on? You need to slow down. Feel the sun, hear the birds. Smile at your beautiful baby boy. No matter what happens, you will be okay.

Breathing in, I calm my mind. Breathing out, I smile. Breathing in, I am dwelling in the present moment. Breathing out, it is a wonderful moment. And yes, it truly is.

The most fascinating thing for me is that most of you can probably relate to much of what I just described; it was a huge breakthrough in my process when I realized that everyone has these thoughts and fears, just not everyone has the same physical reactions to them as I do. I’ve really worked on viewing my anxiety disorder as a set of physical patterns and not as a reflection on my sanity. This separation allows me to observe it without feeling lost in it. But it can be difficult, especially in a society that devalues women and the mentally ill.

I see it as a personal mission to be honest about my experiences so that people can better understand and empathize with hopefully everyone who suffers from a mental illness. Please, keep in mind that you have no idea what a person is going through based on their outward appearance. In fact, people are often shocked to learn that I have OCD; because I’ve worked hard to maintain it and incorporate mindfulness and relaxation into my life, I often come across as laid-back and easy-going even when I’m having a spell.

I guess what I’m saying is, try to be more understanding. We need to love and support each other right now. No matter what happens with my dad, Dave’s job, the Senate, Supreme Court, or the White House, we all need to practice more compassion for one another. An act of kindness can multiply and multiply and make a tremendous difference. Just let everything be okay.

bexndaveinLA

Writer’s Note: I totally broke the rules and spent over four hours on this piece and then edited it again later for at least 30 minutes.

Click here to learn more about the ongoing column Brain-Picking Becky.

The Moral Obligation of White People

Last week’s project of discussing racism and feminism with women of color proved way more challenging than I expected, and left me grappling with my own racism and white privilege in ways that made me very uncomfortable. This was ultimately a good thing – a tough, emotional, soul-searching kind of good thing – and I made myself stay in this space and examine it. I felt it, thought about it, talked about it, wrote about it, and now that I’ve emerged, I am absolutely positive that more white people need to be doing this.

For those of you just tuning in, a few weeks ago I shared my thoughts in Brain-Picking Becky #10: Still a Feminist on the modern feminist movement’s inclusivity problem. In an effort to promote a more diverse dialogue and a culture of listening, I posed two questions to women I thought identified as people of color and shared their responses in two follow-up posts, Part 1 and Part 2. As I said above, this project ended up being much more difficult than anticipated, but even though there are so many complicated facets to racism, so many emotions, so many questions without answers, I feel that I – we – must continue this dialogue. So here goes.

I’ve hated labels for a long time. In my youth I viewed them solely as words that divided us, but now I see that humans are inherently tribalistic, thus rendering labels unavoidable, and that labels actually allow us to come together in solidarity as much as they allow us to discriminate and differentiate. After the experience of talking with a few women of color last week, I also now see how important labels are in identifying ourselves to ourselves and to the world around us. I’m reminded of a college class I took called “Race, Music, and the Spanish-Speaking Caribbean,” when the professor, Raquel Z. Rivera (pictured below), instructed us to make a list of words we used to describe ourselves. I was one of two white people in the class, and we were the only students who didn’t include race or ethnicity on our lists. I wrote female, daughter, sister, friend, student, but I didn’t write white, American or even Kentuckian. However, the other students, all people of color, included their race or ethnicity as their first or second words. I was fascinated and perplexed by this difference, and I spent a long time thinking about it. Ten years later, I’m still thinking.

When looking at my experiences through the lens of white privilege, I find that I don’t have to explain or defend myself nearly as often as people of color do. Perhaps because of this difference, words commonly used as racial and ethnic identifiers don’t have the same personal connotations for me; I tend to view them from the cerebral space of dictionary definitions as opposed to what they mean on an emotional level. As a writer, I do also consider the cultural and personal meanings of words in general, but this consideration obviously comes from my own white perspective. I’ve always thought of “people of color” as all people who are not white, and the Oxford Dictionary backs me up on this one, saying that a person of color is “a person who is non white or of European parentage.” I’ve struggled with this term because it can be so widely applied to such a large swath of folk and doesn’t allow for cultural differentiation, but at the same time, it’s better than identifying people with the negative prefix “non.” However, I didn’t realize that other people might see this term as meaning African-American or black, and that Latinos, a group of people I’ve always assumed to be included under the “people of color” umbrella, might struggle with having it applied to them. I also didn’t realize that it doesn’t actually matter if the dictionary’s got my back or not; what matters is listening to people and using the terms they prefer when talking and writing about them.

This idea of who is included and who isn’t is at the heart of why I don’t like labels – they inherently create insiders and outsiders, and I believe we’re at a point in our country where we need to focus on bringing diverse people together and listening to voices that have previously been silenced or quieted as opposed to debating who’s in and who’s out. But through my efforts to ensure that those voices are heard, I ended up creating a lot of anxiety for my friend Letisia Cruz, a Cuban American who participated in Part 1 of this project, because she doesn’t identify as a “woman of color” and felt that having this label applied to her meant she was usurping other women’s experiences. I looked back through our email exchange and found the origin of our misunderstanding, so in at attempt to make her feel more comfortable, I changed some language in the original post, including replacing one usage of the phrase “woman of color” with “marginalized women.” Her discomfort also sparked an interesting and important thread on Facebook, so at the end of the day, I sat back feeling pretty pleased with myself; I’d created a space for a valuable dialogue, I’d participated in this dialogue, and even though I’d messed up, I’d done my best to fix it.


“Fill in the Blanks” by Shareheads / Creative Commons

Not so fast. The following day I received an email from a different contributor who does identify as “woman of color” but was surprised by my use of the word “marginalized.” She explained, “Certainly, I’m not a member of the white feminist movement by virtue of being a woman of color but… does that make me marginalized? It’s not a word I particularly identify with, but perhaps with elaboration, it could make more sense as a framing for who you engaged in this series. I definitely identify with ‘woman of color’ and engaged the topic from there, but based on all the privileges I carry, I can’t get comfortable with ‘marginalized.'” While reading this response I thought, Dammit, no matter how hard I try, I can’t get it right! I agreed with her that “marginalized” didn’t completely get at the heart of the project, but at the same time, returning to my trusty friend the dictionary, the actual definition is “to treat (a person, group, or concept) as insignificant or peripheral,” and I do feel that women of color across levels of privilege have been treated as insignificant or peripheral in some capacity by the modern feminist movement. It’s interesting that one woman wasn’t down with “of color” because she was afraid that having a lighter shade of skin meant using that phrase was usurping the experience of a darker-skinned woman, while another wasn’t comfortable with “marginalized” based on a similar line of reasoning, of wanting to respect and not step on the experiences of people who aren’t as privileged as her. I didn’t anticipate these differing interpretations and was flustered by it, but what struck me more was how these women were so caring about understanding their own privilege and not assuming anyone else’s experience, whereas so many white people I know make no effort to understand even the most basic ways in which their privilege affects them and others. I’m baffled and angered by the vast amount of white people who choose to stay disconnected from other people’s experiences rather than analyzing and reflecting on these different realities.

Which brings me to a confession I’m having trouble writing out. You know how I said that while I was reading the second email, I thought about how I couldn’t get the wording right? Well, that is true, but it wasn’t my first thought. My first thought actually was, Why are they being so sensitive? It really doesn’t matter this much. I instantly regretted this thought and got straight to editing the post again, ultimately changing “marginalized” to “women whose voices we need to hear,” a phrase that I felt explained my intentions a lot better than either term I’d used, anyway. But when I reflected on this reaction again later that evening, I was flooded with embarrassment and shame. Not only was I handing out labels as I pleased without fully considering other people’s perspectives‪‬ (even though I myself don’t even like labels), but I was also feeling like other people should simply accept my labeling? All because the dictionary said so? Basically, I was yet another white person telling people with darker skin who they are, and then getting annoyed and defensive when they didn’t like it.

“Shame, Street Art by Clive Punk, Windsor” by Urban Pixel / Creative Commons

I spent a good chunk of the weekend feeling like shit over this. I reread everyone’s answers in both Parts 1 and 2 and was even more embarrassed and ashamed over the questions I’d posed; I’d asked about how to make my concept of feminism more inviting to them rather than asking what they or other women in their communities are doing to battle the patriarchy or stand up for women’s rights. But you know what? I’m glad for these bad feelings because ultimately, they changed my way of thinking. White people need to spend a lot more time feeling like shit about racism, or else nothing will ever truly change.

So how do we package and sell this to the masses? No one is gonna raise their hand all like, Sure, sign me up for an exhausting weekend full of feeling bad about myself! I have no real answer to this question, but I keep coming back to the idea that it’s a matter of morality. The relationship between white people and people of color in this country is based on that of master and slave. We can’t keep pretending like slavery is some far away story told in a textbook. It is our moral obligation as white people to confront our country’s history of slavery, segregation and racism, and all of the horrible feelings that come along with it. And we have to recognize that this isn’t a one-and-done situation. Last year, when the police murdered Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in the same awful week, I felt such an intense, guttural reaction that I wrote an essay in a single sitting about my white privilege and how I finally understood systemic racism. It received a lot of positive feedback and I thought that I’d done my work, that I had an easy path ahead of me. But now I’m seeing how anti-racism is an ongoing, evolving process, and we must stay committed to it.

After all of this introspection, I have been left wondering if I spend too much time trying to find the right language and not enough time protesting or marching or going to meetings. These thought loops and discussions feel very cerebral and not quite tangible. But perhaps this analysis of words is a form of revolution in itself; if thought shapes language, then language can also shape thought. Listening to different people’s ideas about language can serve as a window into understanding their way of thinking, which can ultimately (hopefully) result in more empathy. Language isn’t simply a form of communication. It’s a way to identify ourselves, our culture, our traditions and creativity, it’s how we tell the world who we are, it’s our natural form of expression. What might seem like a semantic debate to me may feel to someone else like a debate over who she is and what value our society places on her and her culture. As a writer and therefore a more experienced than average communicator, perhaps my role is to facilitate these conversations and to model my own process of thinking, communicating, and battling racism. Language gives us power. Not enough women, especially women of color, are being heard, and the whole point of this project was to give them a format to speak. I reached out to my friends and neighbors via email and Facebook, and the people who responded are all women who are already expressing themselves in some capacity. It’s crazy and depressing and utterly enraging to think about all of the people out there who don’t feel empowered enough to even speak up, much less fight to be heard.

“Speak Up” by Sara Deming / Creative Commons

In the end, this project was a good lesson for me in many ways. As a writer, I’m reminded that it’s always better to be clear and to choose my own descriptions rather than looking for the “right terms.” As a white person, I’m developing a clearer understanding of how culture and race affects the way we interpret words, and I’m more deeply committed to listening and trying to understand perspectives that differ from my own. And as an activist and educator, I am reaffirmed in my commitment to help other people improve their language skills. Literacy is a right, and if we truly want a more just and equal future, we’ve got to give everyone the power of language.

Many thanks to all of the contributors for being a part of this project and for engaging me in this way, and thank you, my dears, for reading. This has definitely changed the way I view my role in the struggle. I’ve always loved language and believed in its power, but I’ve approached the importance of words from a writer’s perspective more than an activist’s perspective. My mind is spinning, in that tough, emotional, soul-searching kind of good way.

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Further reading material:

What Makes Someone a Person of Color or White in America? by Daniel Rivera, Fusion Magazine

The Term “People of Color” Includes Asian-Americans by Frances Johnson, The Ithacan

The Journey from “Colored” to “Minorities” to “People of Color” by Kee Malesky, NPR

Urgently Visible: Why Black Lives Matter by Jeffrey Renard Allen, The Evergreen Review

Anything by James Baldwin