Monday, December 30, 2013

We Are All Guilty

I have shop-lifted, lied, not fully declared, cut off, run, and knowingly.  At this moment in time and place, as a 30-something white woman with trappings of class, I'm not deemed criminal.  For no good reason.

I'm guilty.

Some of these offenses are considered legal, in certain times and places.  Some of these offenses are deemed illegal.  What constitutes crime shifts, continually.  Who is considered to be criminal shifts as well, although for at least two centuries, in North American, the overwhelming perception is that criminals are low-income brown people.

At various times, we've collectively decided that crimes are indicative of need.  Sometimes, we collectively decide to rehabilitate or aid the offender.  In recent centuries, we've decided to punish and isolate.  At times, there's an idea of redemption for an offender.  In other moments, that person is tortured and/or killed.

It's all rather arbitrary.  It all shifts and it all changes.  For these reasons, I don't think that incarceration has anything to do with guilt.  For those of us who work with incarcerated peoples, we should never feel like we're working with them despite.  "Despite their guilt, their offense."  We should never work with any individual or group and feel superior.

We're all guilty.

Prison guards are guilty of brutality against inmates.  Police are guilty of brutality against citizens.  Mayors, judges, teachers, and Presidents are guilty.  Soldiers kill civilians.  Presidents send drone strike attacks.  Governors order executions.  There is massive blood and brutality in their bureaucracy and yet those who work with them don't do so as a concession.

Work with inmates and better understand incarceration.  Understand its reality and its limitations.  Understand who is incarcerated and that it has everything to do with race and class and nothing to do with "crime."  Understand that crime is a nebulous concept at best.  Understand your own vision of justice and whether it is better served by rehabilitation or punishment.

Work with inmates to offer an under-served population resources.  Work with inmates to redistribute goods back to those who are denied what are considered rights to citizens.

We're all guilty.  If we hope to receive mercy and generosity from others, we need to offer it graciously.  We're all criminals, but only some of us are incarcerated.

My vision of justice is inclusion.  There are no longer prisons where some people are turned into guards and paid to brutalize those who are turned into prisoners.  There are no longer courts that penalize the poor and exonerate the rich.  There are no longer false premises of economic survival being deemed criminal while imperialism is considered innocent.  We're all recognized as guilty and we're all offered the possibility of redemption.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Time opens its arms for me and I sink in

She told me that being an elder felt like an extended sunset.  It was warm and soft
and slow.  You know that the curtain is drawing down, that shapes are flattening,
and there is space for you.  You soften for it.  You brighten and eat moths and
listen to bat wings.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Feeling freaked

Friday night, I exited my car and was splashed by a car racing through a puddle.  Annoyed, I gathered my coat and walked towards the yoga studio, where I would co-facilitate yoga teacher training.  It was chilly and wet.  I approached the cross-walk and looked for on-coming traffic.  Seeing none, I began to cross.  I saw lights, heard screeching, and then realized a car was barreling right for me.  There was nothing I could do to get out of it's path.  For a split second I thought: this is going to happen.  This car is going to hit me.

Somehow, the driver was able to stop in time.  There was screeching and a little fish-tailing given the damp conditions.  Both the driver and I were stunned.  I realized that I was still in the street, dazedly looked, and continued crossing to the safety of the other sidewalk.  The driver rolled down his window.  "What was that?" I shouted.  He shook his head, "I didn't see you."  I nodded and continued to the sidewalk.

I was wearing a dark coat.  He was driving too fast.  He hadn't come from either lane of traffic but from a side street.  In retrospect, he couldn't have paused long before turning, and he accelerated rapidly into the turn, which is why he came so close to hitting me.

I was annoyed at having been splashed, but wasn't too preoccupied.  I think I was fairly aware when I entered the cross-walk.

We both behaved fairly normally.  He certainly drove too fast.  Without intending, we almost altered one another's lives permanently.

I reached the yoga studio and began to tell the trainees and my co-facillitator what happened.  I started crying and couldn't stop.  I just wanted to get home to Kevin and Laz.  My friends at the studio made me wait until I was calmer.  Cautiously, I chose another cross-walk that's well lit and at a stoplight to return to the car.  Kevin received me with open arms and Laz came running to check on me.

The following morning, I decided that I should be OK.  I was a bit surprised and unnerved at how shook up I felt.  Nothing happened.  I wasn't hit.  I should be over it.

Towards the afternoon a friend checked on me.  She said that I did seem a bit weird.  I called Kevin and he said, sure, you'll be a little weird for a bit.

Last year, Kevin was held at gunpoint.  It took him some time to comfortably re-inhabit his own skin.  My experience didn't seem nearly as grave as what Kevin endured.  I felt a bit impatient with myself, or like I was milking sympathy from others.

This morning, I turned on NPR to hear Krista Tippet's On Being rebroadcast an interview with Brene Brown.  I'd heard some of the interview before, but am always grateful to be reminded of Brown's research on the power of vulnerability.  She's found that those of us who are able to be more transparent and human experience more powerful intimacy with others and a greater sense of well-being.  She shared about the gendered nature of vulnerability.  Even though many of us want the men in our lives to be more emotive, we still want to lean on them.  There's often inconsistency between a desire for them to communicate about an equal range of emotions as we allow for women and then the inability to hold space for men feeling afraid or powerless.  I remembered the process of Kevin and I working through his feelings after being held at gunpoint last year.  I remembered the time it took and that ultimately, both of us felt closer and more real.  Real in the sense that we were reminded of our own insignificance, as well as our importance to one another.

Brown spoke of courage being born from struggle.  Some dynamism, or tension, is necessary for growth.  If we always shield ourselves from adversity, we also stunt our abilities to grow.

Throughout her conversation with Tippet, she reinforced feeling.  Patiently.  I realized that I was trying to rush past the fear I experienced Friday night.  I wanted to will it away because, thankfully, I'm OK.  The conversation reminded me that I can feel what I need to without taking up too much space or wallowing.  I can just feel.

As soon as I realized that, I started feeling calmer, and more like myself.

I'm driving more cautiously.  I'm walking with more awareness.  I shared this during my yoga class this morning and after class, several students confessed almost being hit as pedestrians recently.  We hugged each other, grateful that we're all OK, and making space to feel.

Friday, December 6, 2013


Yesterday, I read on Facebook that Nelson Mandela had passed.  I worried that it was a rumor (why do folks start those threads?).  I had to leave to teach yoga, so I turned on NPR in the car.  South African President Zuma was confirming the loss and sharing his grief.  He thanked the world for letting Mandela's cause be all of our cause.

When I reached the studio, I began thinking about how Mandela's life and legacy potentially impacts the inward turn of a yoga practice.  I wanted to make a connection because Mandela was on my mind.  If I had to speak for the next 75 minutes, it would be hard to not make mention of his transition.

As I reflected, I began looking for his speeches.  I thought I'd let him speak for himself during the course of practice.  I pulled up a Youtube video from Mandela's public appearance after being released from 27 years of incarceration on Robben Island.  Let me confess something about myself here: my tolerance for Youtube is about 15 seconds.  I rarely open video files.  I strongly dislike Youtube (it's great that it exists, I just don't play there).  This clip is 15 minutes long.  I watched and waited for Mandela to speak.  He speaks for about three minutes towards the end.

Patiently, with awe and emotion, I watched the cheering, waving, and Black fists pumping the air.  That's when I began to cry.

Mandela didn't die in prison.  He wasn't assassinated.  A sniper's rifle didn't take him out.  He wasn't killed battling Apartheid police or other upholders of that state.  He died in bed, with his family, at age 95.  For all the complexity of his life, that is a victory!  Isn't that the death so many of us crave?  To experience the full arc of life and release it among those we love?

Too many of our Revolutionaries are struck down before their prime: Chairman Fred Hampton Jr, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the eleven killed in the 1985 MOVE bombing.  Mandela lived!

I watched the video and saw people, worldwide, reaching towards freedom.  Therein lies my connection between Mandela's passing and yoga.  I am moved by Mandela's life.  On the surface, why should I be?  I'm of a different generation, from a different plot of the earth.  I'm a middle-class white woman who doesn't know the heel of colonialism nor the brutality of racism.  There are wide gaps between my experience and those who fought apartheid.  Yet, something in me longs for freedom (whatever it may be).  Something in me breaks open and reaches when I hear those cheering voices, crying for Mandela, so happy that he was released from prison, and so moved that their collective action made it so.

It was important that Mandela was released from prison.  And yet, it wasn't only about him as an individual.  His release represented a huge shift in possibility.  Mandela's incarceration was legal and at times it looked as though he would die in jail.  It seemed like apartheid might never fall, at least not in his lifetime.  Global outrage, international action, and boots on the ground made freedom real and tangible.  When people rushed to shake Mandela's hand, they touched a sense of liberation.

We practice yoga for the same reasons.  We meditate and stretch to touch freedom.  There's increasingly a thought that liberation will only be realized collectively.  We're supposed to practice and teach one another to strengthen our capacity for authentic connection despite experiential gaps.  Not to negate these gaps, but to reach into that primal draw to know what is limitless.  We sit in meditation and feel for space.  It's said that all beings exist in that meditated space-- those who committed apartheid, those who suffered it, those who transcend.  It's possible for us to all clarify and merge in that true consciousness.

Mandela was many men during the course of his life.  Aren't we all many people during the course of our own?  This isn't to exonerate questionable choices he made, but rather to reflect on each of our inevitable evolution.  Another reason why we're encouraged to be held accountable by our own community-- so that we grow in ways that will continue to mutually uplift.

Mandela was one of the most public political prisoners.  This is part of why he's always interested me (to the extent that I wrote book reports on him as an 8-year-old).  Many of you know that I've always paid attention to incarceration.  At various points in history and across the globe, humans have conceived differently of what constitutes crime, who is a criminal, and how we want to handle those who we perceive as having crossed a line.  At some moments, we've been interested in integrating these individuals deeper into the fold.  At other moments, we've wanted "criminals" to receive treatment.  Right now, there's a tendency towards punishment.  Our ideas of what constitutes crime continue to change.  At some points, we've found drugs to be OK.  Today, we think pharmaceutical drugs are fine but that certain drugs should be illegal.  Those who market in the ones we determined to be illegal, we consider criminal.  Those who market in the pills we determine to be legal are upheld.

Similarly, I don't think that incarceration has much to do with guilt nor innocence.  Truly, we're all guilty.  We all commit crime at various moments.  I shop-lifted as a teenager.  I don't always declare everything at customs.  As a middle-class white woman from the U.S. I'm not currently the common profile of a criminal.  Others, who commit the same actions as I have, might have long been incarcerated.  Incarceration tends to say more about who we deem threatening and in need of control than about who is guilty of crime.  (It also has everything to do with race and class.)

Mandela was considered a terrorist.  He was terrorizing apartheid and the state wanted him silenced.  His incarceration was legal and seemingly unshakable.  And yet, not because the state realized justice, but because people, internationally realized that there is a morality beyond law, he was released.  A ground-swell of public pressure, outrage, and belief in our own right to freedom brought him home.

I think of his case often as a reminder that we never know when the impossible can become possible.

In yoga, we're told to act but release the fruits of our labors.  In The Bhagavad Gita, Krishna counsels warrior Arjuna in acting in his purpose, his dharma, without expectation for the outcome.  He didn't get to act because he knew that he would survive, or win, or achieve whatever he might have hoped for.  He acted rightly because it was his duty.  He had no claim to the results.

Mandela stayed his course.  He served 27 years and inspired people around the world.  I'm sure he felt terribly isolated at times during his incarceration.  I'm sure he felt forgotten in moments.  And yet, as the video link above demonstrates, when he walked out a free man the whole world felt free.

Mandela should be humanized.  I agree that he was flawed, as are we all.  His image has absolutely been white-washed and co-opted by the current powers that be.  But we can know the truth.  We can know that he started a Revolutionary, a terrorist, an inmate, who kept reaching towards something collective, primal, and real.  And we can know that we too can draw towards our purpose, and maybe even truly be free.

Rest in power.

From El Jones:

Don't let them take Mandela
No no don't let them steal Mandela
Make no mistake they're going to fake erase and lie about Mandela
They can't wait for him to die so they can plasticize Mandela
Appropriate Mandela
Don't you know they hate Mandela?
We can't have the free Mandela
And they'll never let us know that we all can be Mandela
They won't let us feel Mandela
We can't have the real Mandela
Just like Che Guevara shirts they're going to buy and sell Mandela
Now that he cannot speak himself they're going to corporatize Mandela
And we shouldn't be surprised when we don't recognize Mandela
And they will whiten up Mandela and they'll hide the truth about Mandela
Because the last thing they want to do is end apartheid like Mandela
So they'll divide and rule and govern through a colonized Mandela
And this capitalistic system will consume the true Mandela
And we won't like the new Mandela cause he's not for me and you
And they will take him from the ghetto and the township and favela
Oh yeah they're gonna use Mandela
So we have to tell about Mandela
Don't forget the freedom charter when we yell about Mandela
But they cast a big umbrella
Full of brainwashing and error
It's got skeletons inside they already tried to get Fidel
And they will stick to their vendetta
Cause their clique goes on forever
They'll shove Obama down our throats
While they hide speeches songs and letters
You can bet that they will twist him to whatever serves them better
They're going to write their own novella
Because they can't control Mandela
So we have to hold Mandela
Know the goals that drove Mandela
Spear of the Nation old Mandela
And truth and reconciliation sold Mandela so we have to get to know Mandela
Not the diamond mines Mandela
Or the compromised Mandela
Not the World Cup or Invictus or the canonized Mandela
The ride or die Mandela
Viva la revolution socialized Mandela
Cuito Carnavale and militarized Mandela
Castro and Mandela raising fists to the oppressor
Oh but they'll give us safe Mandela
Nobel peace prize great Mandela
And let's forget about the state and institutions that brutalized Mandela
And are still in place world wide together
They'll say oh he forgave, remember?
So there's no need for the poor to ever rise up like Mandela.
We'll get quarter of Mandela
A watered down Mandela
A kindergarten cartoon for your sons and daughters
Just a shell of our Mandela
Just like with Gandhi and with King they'll sound the death knell for Mandela
And before his body's cold they'll cast their spell upon Mandela
We'll get have a dream Mandela and love your enemies Mandela
And power to the people will be buried with Mandela
So we can't let them steal Mandela
Because they can't feel Mandela
It's the spirit of the revolution can't conceal Mandela
It's a 500 year connection sharing ideals with Mandela
From the slave ships to Haiti, Cuba and Soweto
Thats what reveals Mandela
And that's why they can't keep Mandela
But we can't sleep on Mandela
Because the truth is there never was just one complete Mandela
It's the people made Mandela
The movement create Mandela
The youth in streets while he was still behind prison gates propelled it
And it went on whatever measures they attempted to suppress it
And so the people can remember
Solidarity forever
Because as long as our hearts beat then they can never take Mandela.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Here. Wherever that is.

Thanksgiving means a six hour drive along the Eastern Shore and a requisite stop for greasy fare at a diner.  It means time for Kevin and I to have a "State of our Union"-- a bigger, longer, uninterrupted talk about what's been occupying our thoughts and lives.  It's easy to live with another person, hug them, have brief check-ins, but not fully know the other's inner content.  These car trips offer an opportunity to have those winding conversations of greater depth.

Often, I'll toss out questions like Kevin's top three wish list destinations.  Honestly, there's nowhere in the world that I don't have some interest in experiencing.  Knowing what's whetting his whistle helps me narrow down my own desires.  Inevitably, these questions will reflect back to previous adventures we've shared and how they may be coloring our current impulses.

As much as I'm curious about all the world, I've also truly enjoyed all of the trips I've taken.  Given that we have a limited amount of time for each trip and that we've mandated annual travel, there's always another trip on the horizon.

We always reflect on Vietnam.  I remember being so overwhelmed, in the best possible way, by the intensity of sight, scent, and sound.  All of my senses were triggered and I was so aware.

There have been periods of my life that were remarkable and unfortunately, I didn't realize it until I had the benefit of hindsight.  Maybe because of the punctuation surrounding these international adventures, I always know in that moment that this life is truly remarkable.

That keen sense of being alive reminds me to cultivate that same wonder and appreciation in my day-to-day life.  It can be mundane, sure, but it can also be a treasure.