Sunday, January 29, 2017

Uprising of Love

I recognize that there are people and communities who agree with many of Trump's actions and stances taken since his inauguration, or at least not completely terrified and outraged by them.  But my community of friends and I are generally beyond appalled and aghast at the fact that Trump was elected and the incredible executive actions he's taken in the mere first week of his presidency.  Since November 9, there has not been a time I've gotten together with friends that this hasn't been one of the main topics of conversation.  We're trying to figure out what happened, what to do next, how to organize, how best to resist.  Last weekend I put on my pink hat and marched with millions across the country and world to protest, to give voice to resistance.  And let me be clear: these types of protests and demonstrations are necessary and must continue.  We cannot be silent in the face of so much harm being done to those with less power, privilege and voice.  

But since Trump was elected, I continue to be concerned that we are missing something.  Those of us who did not vote for him keep asking, Why? Who would vote for this man? How could this happen? What do we do now?  At which point it becomes altogether too easy to villainize Trump voters as hateful, uniformed, unintelligent, or worse.  This doesn't sit easy with me.  It doesn't make sense to me to make that type of generalization about nearly half the population of our country -- it seems like folly.

In this interview with Kathy Cramer, a political science professor from UW Madison, she discusses her book The Politics of Resentment.  She explains, "Now you have liberals saying, 'There is no justification for these points of view, and why would I ever show respect for these points of view by spending time and listening to them?'"  In fact, I think that the answer to the question Why would anyone vote for Trump? is the key to What do we do now?  I think we need to better understand why folks -- intelligent, informed, caring, decent people -- voted for Trump.  To ignore, dismiss, or misunderstand their perspective does nothing but further alienate and divide us.  And the chasm of this divide -- this chasm is where the terrible destruction lives and thrives.

I've been having a hard time putting my finger on this, but then I came across this article, "How to Culture Jam a Populist in Four Easy Steps" by Andrés Miguel Rondón, published again yesterday in the Washington Post, slightly revised and under a different title.

Rondón, a Venezuelan economist, applies lessons learned from failed attempts at resisting Chávez to our current predicament in fighting back against Trump.  He explains, "In one way, Trump and Chávez are identical: they are masters of Populism."  He writes that, "Populism can only survive amid polarization. It works through caricature, through the unending vilification of a cartoonish enemy. Pro tip: you’re the enemy. Yes, you, with the Starbucks cup. Trump needs you to be the enemy just like all religions need a demon. As a scapegoat. “But facts!”, you’ll say, missing the point entirely."  Being indignant at this characterization will do nothing aside from reinforcing it.  We must come to terms with the fact that this is how we are being portrayed and perceived.  Again, ignoring or dismissing this only serves to widen the chasm.  Cramer's research supports this as well.  She explains, "People are only going to absorb facts when they’re communicated from a source that they respect, from a source who they perceive has respect for people like them.  And so whenever a liberal calls out Trump supporters as ignorant or fooled or misinformed, that does absolutely nothing to convey the facts that the liberal is trying to convey."

Rondón writes, "It took our leaders ten years to figure out they needed to actually go to the slums and to the countryside. And not for a speech, or a rally, but for game of dominoes or to dance salsa – to show they were Venezuelans too... That they could break the tribal divide, come down off the billboards and show they were real. And no, this is not populism by other means. It is the only way of establishing your standing. It’s deciding not to live in an echo chamber. To press pause on the siren song of polarization."  Here we are, two sides divided, entranced by the hypnotic song of the siren, calling to us, telling us we and we alone are the righteous, correct, and just. And we are lured, crashing on the shore, impaling ourselves on the jagged rocks of righteousness. 

This will not get us where we need to go. Don't misunderstand me -- the reporting, sharing of true information, protesting, running for government positions, showing up and being heard -- these actions are imperative and must continue.  But we also must bridge the gap between urban and rural, between liberal elite and working class, between ... you can fill in all the other apt clichés  here.  Cramer shares her experience of researching in rural Wisconsin: "Even at the end of my first visit, they would say, 'You know, you’re the first professor from Madison I’ve ever met, and you’re actually kind of normal.' And we’d laugh. We got to know each other as human beings. That’s partly about listening, and that’s partly about spending time with people from a different walk of life, from a different perspective. There’s nothing like it. You can’t achieve it through online communication. You can’t achieve it through having good intentions. It’s the act of being with other people that establishes the sense we actually are all in this together."

We cannot continue only stand at the edge of the chasm and shout into the void, letting the wind carry our voices back to ourselves.  We have to reach across to the folks who we do not yet understand and say I want to know you better. Teach me, I want to learn.  

To me, this is an essential part of the organizing that we need to do, and the best way to change Trump's narrative of what ails and plagues our country.  This is difficult work; we are stratified and segregated in our geography, our social groups, our social media networks.  This requires humility and time.  

One of the speakers at the Women's March in D.C. spoke of this movement as an "uprising of love."  This framing struck me in the moment as uniquely powerful.  Fierce love requires that we care, listen, come to understand the perspective of others.  I don't say this lightly. I don't sprinkle it with glitter and fairy dust. I say this because in my experiences as a teacher, a principal, and a community organizer, I have time and again witnessed opposing sides work through their impasse -- almost magically, organically, surprisingly-- by courageously opening themselves up to vulnerability and hearing each other's needs. This is how the uprising of love begins. 

Friday, January 1, 2016

Bon Courage

A reflection upon entering the new year...

A few years ago in yoga class, I did my first ever forearm handstand.  As I continue to practice this pose, I keep learning from it.  I noticed a while back that -- while I can do the pose in the center of a room with no supports, staying inverted and upright for maybe a minute -- if I do the pose near a wall, I can easily stay up at least twice as long.  Even though I'm not touching the wall, the promise of support in the event I would need it serves to remove the quiet fear I feel when I start to fatigue and allows me to resist preemptively coming out of the pose.  I'm willing to challenge myself a little longer, realizing that I'm capable and it's the fear holding me back.

Fear can be a real mindf*ck.

I'm in my third year of being a high school principal in the Bronx.  To put it mildly, the past three months have not been easy.  (The past three years have not been easy, but who's counting?)  To say that this job is the most difficult thing I've ever attempted to do is such a massive understatement, it makes me chuckle a little as I type it.  I figured the first couple years would sort of be like bootcamp and what else could I expect except to get a little pummeled.  But I was really hoping that I'd start to feel at least slightly more competent in my third year.  Turns out, nope.  Still getting pummeled.

The work is difficult, yes.  But at times what compounds the difficulty is my own fear.  I fear that I'll fail, that I won't be able to provide well enough for the kids or the staff.  I fear that I won't prevent terrible situations that could have been prevented.  I fear that people, inside my school and outside of it, will think I am not a good leader, that I don't have the ability to lead, that I have no business being there as principal.  And it's the fear that's paralyzing.  Not the work.  The work is incredibly challenging, but it's doable.  The fear is the beast.


And yet it's real.  This beast is tangible and palpable.  I can feel it pounce and hold me down.  I feel it crawling over my skin.  It seeps inside and courses through my veins at times.

I'm learning to identify the beast, to name it, to take away some of its power.  Because I'm learning that I cannot do the work well with it clinging to me.  It's so heavy and takes so much of my energy that would be better spent elsewhere.  On supporting the kids and developing the school.  This sort of courage is not simple, though.

Yoga instructors often set a theme for classes.  A while back I attended a class where the instructor focused on heart-opening poses.  These are poses that expose your chest and heart and demand a certain level of courage and vulnerability because you're open and vulnerable (wheel pose, for example).  The instructor began the class by discussing the word "courage," with its root word cœur, which is French for "heart."  He talked about how heart-opening poses make us vulnerable and require courage.  He encouraged us (gave us heart), to acknowledge the fear that would come up for us in these poses and to move through the fear by opening ourselves to the vulnerability by putting our hearts -- both physically and spiritually -- forward.

It seems to me that this is a good lesson, and one worth reconsidering as I move into 2016.  The fear will continue to be there, but as I continue to learn and grow, to push and breathe, I remind myself that I can't make it through if I'm curled in on top of myself in an effort of self-protection.  Instead, I can acknowledge the fear, without judgment, and face the work heart-first.  

With this in mind, I wish you (and me!) bon courage and a happy new year!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

A Doozy

Last week marked the conclusion of my first year being a principal.  People keep asking me, "So how was your first year?  How do you like being a principal?"  And I keep just staring blankly at them, having no idea how to respond to these questions.

It was like nothing I've ever done.  I feel like dough that's been kneaded into a ball, thrown on a cold counter, and rolled out thin.  A bit thinner with each passing day.  I feel like I've been dancing with an angry swarm of bees for 10 months.  Like I got dropkicked into the ocean and have maybe just now started to learn to swim.  I feel like a fierce mother, determined to let nothing harmful near my child.  And like I've ended up in the middle of a cosmic joke; not as the punch line, but definitely part of the comedic plot.

I've never felt this weak before.
I've never felt this strong before.

I learned what if felt like to peel myself up through fatigue and fear and illness and just keep going.  Somewhere amidst that is a strength, I know.  But I also feel like someone has been kicking the shit out of me in a back alley for the better part of a year.  I'm terribly exhausted, but not as scared as I was.

A year ago I ran a half marathon for the second time.  It really didn't go very well.  The first half was fine, and then my iPod unexpectedly died, and my feet hurt, and it was so hard to keep going.  I was in a bad mood and just couldn't find my groove.  During those last six miles, I so appreciated the people cheering on the sidelines.  A mile from the end of the race a man had posted himself to encourage runners.  He was a competitor himself who had finished and jogged back to the 12-mile marker to cheer on the rest of us.  Had you asked me before the race, I would have said that his presence there would be irksome -- he'd finished, he had enough energy to run another mile and then casually hang out.  But I was wrong; that man was the reason I was able to finish the race.  He looked me in the eye, gave me a high five, and told me to keep going, that I would make it.  I held that with me during that final mile.

This year I had everyone telling me I could do it, that I could hang in there, that I could make it to the end of the year.  And I needed every single voice, needed to cling to the belief others had in me.

I think the tough part for me now is that the race is not done.  It's just beginning, and I have to keep running.  In fact, I'm not even sure how long the race is.  When will it stop being uphill?  When will the scenery become welcoming?  When will I hit my stride?  I've been told that at the very least next year will be hell on wheels, too.  And I believe it.

Somewhere in there, though, it's okay.  Because I'm starting to see the change -- in the school, the staff, the kids.  We have so far to go, so very far.  But my dreams for this place are beginning to take root.  This growth is difficult for all of us, and the progress is often subtle and elusive -- but it is there, and I'm determined to cultivate it.  And I'm honored that any number of adults are willing to put their faith in my vision and leap with me.

In the meantime, I'm still waiting for the punch line of this joke I fell into.  I bet it's a doozy.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Setting The Body On Fire

Since I became a principal a few months back, I think it's fair to say that my life is a smidge more stressful than it was before that moment.  Weekly yoga practice notwithstanding, the stress has found all sorts of interesting ways to manifest itself.  Of particular note is the fact that I am now (on and off for the past seven months -- mostly on) hard of hearing.  The stress has created a nearly constant ringing in my right ear that has spontaneously rendered me an old woman.  "Eh, what's that, sonny?"  I've taken to only holding the phone to my left ear and generally making everyone around me repeat themselves, which embarrasses me and frustrates them.  I'd fake it and nod more if I could, but virtually every piece of information communicated to me these days is new, relatively important, and requires my actual understanding.  The smile and nod just won't cut it.  "I'm sorry, say that again..."  This is all fairly amusing to me since parents and colleagues are constantly surprised when I introduce myself as the school's principal: oh, but I'm so very young to be principal, they tell me.

While I could do without the brain ringing, I'm finding that I can't imagine giving this up.  I know that sounds all simple and lovely and romantic, but let me assure you -- it's not.  It's painful and confusing and joyous and unexpected and exhausting and lonely and exhilarating and... it's not simple.  And I do not feel simply about it.  In fact, I find that I narrate my story constantly, as a means of trying to construct an understanding around this new identity and endeavor I've been thrown headlong into.

My weekend yoga practice helps me create the space in my life to do this.  A couple weeks back my instructor was giving a brief lesson at the start of class about Shiva, one of Hindu's three main deities.  Brahma is known as the creator, Vishnu as the preserver.  Shiva is the destroyer.  Destroyers often get a bad rap; "creator" or "preserver" sound so much more appealing.  But destroying can also mean transforming, a way to make way for the new.  My teacher explained it this way: "Shiva set the body on fire to find out what the soul was made of."  And that made so much sense to me.  It describes the way I've felt about this school year.

I don't mean to sound grandiose or dramatic, but so often this year I've felt like I've leapt belly first into a volcano, to be wholly swallowed by the molten ocean within.  My stress accumulates in my joints, I have bags under my eyes, it feels as though my skin will fall off, I can't hear anymore, and I wake up at 3 and 4am in a quandary of puzzlement.  I've set my body on fire.

But I am surely finding out what my soul is made of.  I feel myself shifting and being stretched.  I'm watching as I push people, share my vision, demand more.  And the school begins to reshape itself.  I have such a passionate rage burning in me that I can't sleep because I want it to be the next day so that we can do the next thing.  The next 87 things.  Immediately.  So the school can be better, so the children can be more prepared to face the lives lying in wait for them.  I want it now.  My soul is alight.

Maybe it takes a little destroying to make room for the transformation.  Maybe the pain and discomfort -- and the ringing in my ear -- are worth it, if it means that my soul can learn what it's made of.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

This is where I am

Hello again to all seven of you who at one point read my posts regularly.  This is the first moment in many, many months where I have had both the time and wherewithal to write - though I don't know that I have anything significant to say just now...

In August I became a principal.  It was all rather a whirlwind experience.  I was contacted in the last week of July to see whether I might be interested in the position, at which point I met and interviewed with what seemed like 732 different people over the course of two weeks.  Not entirely sure whether I was willing or ready to make the leap, I snuck into the school and walked its empty summer hallways.  And there I thought, that just maybe, this is where I was supposed to be.  In the second week of August I was offered the job, and thus, unceremoniously launched into my new role as principal.

Let me just say this: I knew this job was going to be difficult, and stressful, and crazy.  Turns out I hadn't the slightest idea -- to know a thing abstractly is no comparison to living and breathing it daily.  It's all-consuming and easily the most difficult thing I've ever tried to do.

And yet, I know I made the right decision, and I know this is where I'm supposed to be.

The thing is, I'm beginning to know the children, and I'm beginning to know the staff.  They are so many beautiful people.  The kids ricochet off the walls, sending their fears and insecurities scattering into anyone who happens to be nearby, and this reverberates daily around our building.  Many of them bring with them a sense of noisy desperation to which I am not wholly accustomed.  I ask the most apathetic and aggressive of them to attempt kindness, and they look at me like I'm crazy.  No - they tell me I'm crazy.  "You crazy, Miss."

Perhaps I am.  But then again, so are all the other amazing adults I work with.  They are a team of people who has chosen to work in public education, with disadvantaged and marginalized adolescents.  These adults commit themselves daily to doing right by these kids in the best ways they know how.  And it's such amazingly difficult work, and so they are my heroes.

Last year I seized on this poor woman who came to observe my classes; I insisted that she student teach with me last spring.  She did, and I watched as she fell in love with the children.  I watched her learn how to construct curriculum and how to bring it to life in front of them.  And I watched her anguish every time a student gave up and refused to participate.  Her heart would break for them, and she'd go after these kids with a vengeance.  It was the most beautiful thing.

When I became principal, I asked her to come with me to my school.  She said yes, and I thank God for her every day.  There she is in her classroom giving everything she has -- really, giving so much more than she has -- she's reaching down into and past the depths of herself for the kids.  I sometimes want to apologize to her for bringing her into this crazy place with me, this place that can be so difficult -- it wrenches your heart out without any warning.  It leaves you fried and frazzled and dazed.  And yet she just keeps giving, and so do her fellow teachers.  I am unspeakably grateful.

I am learning what it means to lead adults, to run an organization, to collaborate with countless stakeholders.  I am learning to try to put something into motion, and to screw it up a dozen times over, and try again.  I am learning what it feels like to feel helpless and in letting go, to be open to the newness.  I am learning what it feels like to make thousands of decisions a day.  No.  I mean it.  Thousands.

To the point that I simply cannot decide what to eat by the time I get home, or which shelf the bowls should go on in our new apartment.  I cannot make these decisions.  And so my gorgeous husband has taken care of me -- without complaint, without fuss.  He lets me sob or sleep or walk around like a zombie.  He takes me out when I need to escape, and tucks me in when I need to hide.  For him, too, I thank God every day, every hour.

And so this is the adventure.  This is where I am now.  It is so utterly terrifying, and has so much potential for beauty.  I am hanging on for dear life, knowing that life will carry me along with it.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A Wee Bit Scared

Here is a truth: I am deeply uncomfortable, terrified even, of doing new things.  And I'm not talking here about skydiving or drag racing -- activities that reasonable humans should reasonably fear.  I'm referring to the way my palms sweat and my heart races before I try a new class at the YMCA where I've been a member for six years; the way I consider canceling on friends at the last minute because we're meeting at a place I've never been before; the way I panic and want to crawl out of my skin as I walk into a room full of people I don't know.

My personal response to this has been a strange two-step jig, the steps of which alternate between spending a LOT of time on the safety of my own couch and throwing myself headlong into all the scary.

When Greg and I decided to move to New York City, I was petrified.  And exhilarated.  Mostly petrified.  I was convinced NYC was the final frontier: if I could live here, I could do anything.  Having grown up in a Midwestern suburb, I was certain that if I could learn to navigate the subway, the taxis, the unattainable fashion and coolness, and all the rude New Yorkers, I could conquer anything thereafter.  We drove into the city on July 11, 2005.  Heading south on the FDR Drive, the skyscrapers loomed over us in all their glory and haughty indifference.  I was terrified.  Where would we park?  I mean, where would we park?  Wow, there's NYC, close enough to lean out the car window and touch, but where would we park?  Sheer panic.

Needless to say, we found parking.  And then spent the next six sweaty weeks of summer learning the rhythm of the city, and the following eight years making meaning of its cadence and lyricism.  And though I cannot claim to be a true New Yorker (I think the title is bestowed only after a decade?), I love this city every day, want to drink it in and merge myself into its very concrete fabric.

And yet, I am still scared of all the new things.  Because you know what?  There is no final frontier, for any of us, I think.  The past three years of my life have taught me this -- getting older does not mean that it all gets magically easier or suddenly makes sense; life laughs (at us or with us is debatable), a perpetual surprise around the corner.  I amuse Greg with my attempts to thwart these surprises; I generate endless "if-then" scenarios, hoping to lessen the new and unexpected, and thus the fear.  Sometimes this works, sometimes it does not.

I hate driving.  I cannot predict the road, the other drivers, the sun blinding me in the late afternoon.  I have a recurring dream that I am in a car being driven by no one, that I cannot get to the steering wheel, that the car is loose and on the run.  I get that dreams are symbolic and this dream could be interpreted as having larger symbolic meanings, and blah blah blah.  It's the car, people.  It freaks me out.

But I keep driving, and trying some of the other scary things, too.  And not all of them work out, really.  Not infrequently I just end up in a ball sobbing, sorry to say.  (Do your ears water when you cry?  Because mine do.)  Sometimes scary just keeps being scary, and it bites you in the ass a little.  Regroup on the couch.  And then back at it again.  What else is there to do but to try again?  One can't stay on the couch forever, right?

Last night, my banjo and I went to my first official banjo lesson.  Panic, panic.  But the evening was lovely.  The trees were lush from rain, the breeze drifted by, toying with my long summertime skirt.  And as I crossed over the highway on a footpath, I felt my internal scale tip away from terror and toward something like joy.  This new thing might just be okay.

Turns out the lessons were rescheduled for next week, unbeknownst to me.  Banjo and I trekked back home, back to face the scary again next week, together.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Running in the Rain

I ran eight miles in the rain this morning.  Today marked my last long run to train for my second half-marathon, next Saturday.  The weather forecast predicted rain and thunderstorms likely for the whole day, so when I woke up and there was a small break in the rain, I figured I better just go for it.  The sky was only just spitting for the first mile, and then the sprinkle gradually increased into a shower over the next few miles, but by then I was warm and oddly happy to be accompanied by the rain.  In fact, around mile six I realized that the rain had momentarily let up and I was surprised to find myself feeling as though I'd been abandoned by a friend.

When I first started running several years ago, I refused to run anywhere but on a treadmill.  I think it felt safe; I was in a controlled environment, I could stop whenever I wanted to.  Gradually I began to run in the park, but never by myself -- it seemed too daunting somehow.  Slowly I learned to run alone and to venture beyond the familiarity of the park (a couple weeks ago I even ran the 10 miles from my apartment in Brooklyn to Columbus Circle in Manhattan solo!).  But I've never willingly run in the rain.  I've seen other people run in the rain and thought, Hey, there goes a dedicated runner.  That looks awful.  Today though, I shunned the indoor track and joined the ranks of the badass rain runners.

A couple nights ago I listened to presentations by a few organizations that help at-risk kids succeed.  One of these was Row New York, a group that "empowers young people from New York City's under-resourced communities to build strength, gain confidence, and pursue excellence through the unique sport of rowing."  The speaker talked about how rowing teaches young people endurance and dedication; they row when they're tired, when it's cold, when it's pouring down rain.  While she spoke, I thought about how important this is, and how hard it is to teach young people this, or to learn it yourself.

This week in school I spoke to one of the 11th graders who had just done miserably on his neuroscience test.  He told me he understood the material, but just hadn't studied enough, explaining that he was bad at studying.  When I offered to go over some study techniques with him, he said he knew how to study, but was just too lazy to do it.  "What happens when you need to study for tests in college?" I asked.  "Oh, I'll study in college!"  To which I replied, "You won't be able to unless you build your study muscle now."  "There's a study muscle?"  "Yes, of course there is," I lied.  But it wasn't really a lie.  I talked to him about how it's important to build endurance, that it doesn't happen all at once.

I think about this a lot when a child who has not regularly engaged in school decides he wants to really be a student.  The turn away from apathy and self-doubt is such a beautiful moment, and in some ways often feels like it should be the end the long battle, but really it's just the beginning of an even longer one.  These students start out at a sprint, and soon tire, wanting once again to give up.  They don't know what it feels like to be a student -- to push themselves, to stay in class all day long, to complete a project, to care enough to ask for help, to keep working.  It's so exhausting, and they have no previous training or experience.  They just want to poof! be academically successful.  Asking them to be a full-time student all at once is akin to suggesting that a person merely stop loafing about and run a marathon, now, today, no running experience needed.  It's not possible, not sustainable.  In reality, these kids must commit to a long-term and arduous journey.

Last year I was scared to run the half-marathon.  I didn't know if I could do it.  Literally.  I didn't know if my body would take me 13.1 miles -- I had never done it before.  After the race was over, I was relieved and joyous, and proud of myself.  But it dawned on me that the race was not what I was most proud of; I was most proud of my training.  It turned out that the race was the easy part, full of celebration and fanfare; the 10 weeks of non-stop, grueling running leading up to the race was what had made me strong.  Every day that I did not want to run but did anyway -- that was what taught me something about myself.  That's why the little milestones and personal celebrations are so important, they're the only thing that can keep us going.

Last night I went to see one of my girls in her first full-on roller derby bout.  She was amazing.  All the girls were amazing.  These girls train several times a week.  They're badass chicas, proudly showing off bruises like war wounds.  They speed around the track, falling hard and getting right back up again.  I am so impressed by their spirit and want to be one of their teammates.

This student of mine, she checks in with me a couple times a day at school.  She comes for a hug and a laugh, and for me to remind her that she is strong enough to keep going and conquer her school projects.  I remind her that if she can do it with a pair of roller skates on a track, she can push herself to excel in school, too.  She tells me she wants to be strong like me, but what she doesn't understand is that I want to be strong like her.  I want to push myself to do the next difficult thing, to get up again when I've been knocked down and hurt or discouraged or when I am lost.  That girl in her roller skates, she teaches me to be a strong woman.