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Writing of Racism and Pandemics

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Everybody says I must write. It’s what writers do. Words help us make sense of the world. Words can comfort and calm or inspire and challenge, all of which are sorely needed in this moment.

It’s just that I’m having trouble writing. I write in my journal most days, as I have for fifty years (??!!) but I mean writing for consumption by others. I had written a nice, hopeful blog back in May, before all hell broke lose in the white world — because of course “all hell” has been lose in the black world for a long, long time. The blog was about how COVID-19 is teaching us to appreciate the simple things and to live in the present moment. It started out thusly:

“‘Plan Ahead with Confidence!’ shouts the red banner ad splashed across my screen. I laugh out loud. I remember planning. I have years of journals filled with various versions of it: What, when, how, with whom? Nowadays the only thing I’m able to plan is my grocery list, which feels outlandishly vital. I know exactly what I’m going to get (if the shelves aren’t bare) and it’s all written in aisle-order so that I don’t waste any time wandering around with all those scary masked vectors who used to be my innocuous neighbors.

My grocery list gives me a sense of control in this time when so little is in my control, least of all, the future. Of course, the future never was in my control, but somehow planning gave me the illusion of control. In reality, all we ever have is this present moment, but these COVID days have made us more aware of this truth.”

. . . And then I prattled on about the present moment, how lovely it is to bake bread, how walking is sweet therapy, how my neighbors probably started their new gardens out of a survival instinct, but are learning to love digging in the dirt and watching seedlings sprout. Etc. It was a “nice” blog, which now reeks of white privilege to me.

Things Aren’t Nice Anymore

Since the week of May 25th, when George Floyd was slowly, tortuously murdered by a policeman in front of the whole world and we witnessed intentional, vicious white privilege in the form of a safe, professional white-lady-dog-walker, things aren’t so nice. The thin veneer of niceness that separated white reality from black reality has, at long last, been splintered into sharp shards. The President of the United States is using those shards to slash whatever vestige of American unity might have remained.

Local artist’s portrayal of George Floyd

Sitting in my living room tapping on my laptop keys seems pointless.

Instead, I’ve been on Zoom calls about systemic racism and white privilege, I’ve ordered books and more books, I’ve joined Facebook groups that help white people understand that their reality is not the only reality. I’ve had honest and uncomfortable conversations with my black friends. I’ve attended four socially distanced, masked protest vigils in my community and at my church, not wanting to risk COVID at the protests in D.C. 

Writing a New Story

 

I’m taking an online class called The New Story Community, about imagining a new human story based not on power and domination, but on community and cooperation. A speaker named Melvin Bray really resonated with me (if you click on that link, begin at 10:05). Melvin teaches that simply trying to change minds and hearts won’t dismantle racism. By the time you get to the emotional stage, it’s too late. Because racism started for reasons of gain and profit, not hatred or fear. Once you’ve enslaved a bunch of people and committed genocide against some others, you have to backfill with a rationale for your actions. So you conclude that those people are “less than . . . sub-human . . . beasts . . . need to be civilized,” or better yet, “saved” by your religion. From that rationale is created your society’s myth, the story that dictates how you live, and your emotions and beliefs. Hence, if you start with emotions and beliefs like white hatred and fear, you’re way too late. You have to start with action —  a “doing” — because that’s what started the cycle of racism.

 

These are not times for inaction or silence, and I feel restless and impatient. I pray and I meditate and I implore the cosmos, “What’s my part, what’s my role, what am I to DO?” And two words keep coming back to me: truth and write.

Writing Truth

Truth is a hard one, especially when we are experiencing a pandemic of lying, concealment, and “alternative facts.” Real truth, though, is an inner thing. It only comes when you still yourself, open your grasping hands, and sit with the grief and pain of losing whatever myths you believed about yourself and/or the world. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” I believe this, and I also believe that when anyone escapes their fearful, ego-centered thinking and opens their heart to true oneness and compassion, they are connecting with the same spirit I find in Jesus, no matter what they label it. 

So getting to truth is complicated, and confused with “reality” and “right and wrong” and “proof” and all the rest. 

But writing? Writing I can do. It’s what I’m called to do. I pray that my words and the spirit behind them will add mercy and kindness and truth to the world. I also pray that grief, confusion, cynicism, fear, outrage, guilt, and despair do not keep me from being who I’m meant to be and doing what I’m meant to do. Amen.

Amen

Women Wrestling With Writing

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“I’m afraid to write.” The woman looks down and gives the dirt a few timid kicks with the toe of her Nike-clad foot.

“I don’t get that,” says her twenty-something daughter. “I blogged a lot when I was trying to work through my family stuff a few years ago.”

“Yes, that helped you, didn’t it?” The older woman says, more to herself than to her daughter. “But still, I couldn’t.”

Couldn’t what, exactly? It’s not as if we were talking about publishing  – I had simply suggested that journaling might help her sort through the tangle of what’s-next-in-my-life thoughts that tumbled out of her mouth. What was she afraid of? The thing is, I’ve heard this trepidation expressed often, especially from “women of a certain age.” When I mention that I’ve left my career and gone back to school for a Master’s in Writing, their response is often an expression of awe and fear that would be more appropriate if I were taking up alligator wrestling.

I suppose that could be partly a reaction to me leaving a good paying job to pursue freelance writing. Yes, that’s crazy. But they’ll follow it up with, “I could never write. I’d be too afraid.” If you ask what of, they’ll say they don’t know.

Are they afraid they won’t write well? That they’ll be judged? Won’t measure up to some imagined standard? Feel stupid?

The most important thing about putting pen to paper, or hands to keyboard, is at least a mild willingness to contemplate truth. Writing can be like moderating a conversation with the voices in your own head as they meander their way towards an emerging truth. When you’re writing, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. Don’t share it if you don’t want to. But you do have to be willing to let the truth settle out, like flakes of gold through silty water.

What some people fear, I expect, is looking at the truth. And that’s because the truth is often not an intellectual thing, but a matter of the heart and the emotions. These women don’t want to confront their feelings. Writing can be very revealing and therapeutic, but therapy is hard. And scary. They seem afraid to look inside themselves, afraid of what might be down there. Having been raised to be “nice” women who don’t make waves, they’ve likely got a cap on things like resentment and disappointment and unexpressed anger. Or maybe they fear there is nothing in there at all. Nobody home, or at least nobody worth noticing.

I don’t know what issues the woman in the Nikes was dealing with, and she probably doesn’t either. I do know that in the ten minutes we chatted, she repeatedly apologized for herself and called herself stupid twice. I could feel the toxicity of her shame. I almost wanted to beg her to write.

“You’ve got to expose those wounds,” I wanted to say. “Let it all bleed out onto the page so the infection can get some air and light.” Just Do It, Nike Lady!

One of the reasons I’ve decided to study writing is to learn how I can help others discover the healing power of the pen. I’ve kept a journal since I was fifteen. I dredge up my crap, dump it on paper, and then sift through the muck looking for lessons, obsessions, warped motivations, and worries I’ve picked up that don’t have my name on them. Even if I start out making a grocery list, my psyche knows that it’s safe between those covers, and it will shortly deliver whatever needs to be processed.

If you don’t journal, Blog People, I hope you will start, or maybe try again if you’ve quit. Personal journaling might reduce navel-gazing on the web, and I’m certain it would make the world, and your brain, a healthier place.

I’m realizing as I write that I’ve got my own fears to confront. I have never read the dozens of old journals stacked in my closet. Once or twice I’ve scanned through some years of sexanddrugsandrock&roll, and what I read was painful. I felt sympathy for the desperately needy person I used to be, and sometimes disgust at the way I treated myself and others. It wasn’t fun reading. But it will surely enrich my writing if I can muster the courage to dive in. Fear is overrated.

“The courage to create is the courage to make something out of what we are feeling.”

Julia Cameron

 

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