Compassion for Bigots – Yes, Even Them

“So, what do you think of Colin Kaepernick and his protest?”

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Used with permission of Pro Football Schedules under Creative Commons license. http://profootballschedules.com/falcons-vs-49ers-photos

Discussing hot-potato political issues with people we know can be iffy enough, especially with the unprecedented ugliness of the 2016 Presidential election, but with a stranger at the bus stop – well, you never know what might get you gunned down.

But my bus was running late and I was bored. What the hell, I thought. I’ll engage.

“I think he’s exercising his constitutional right to free speech to protest a problem that has needed attention for far too long,” I replied with a smile. I did not add that I am a Kap fan, being one of the #FortyNinerFaithful, which I don’t often mention in casual conversation seeing as how I live deep in Seahawks territory and all. Turned out that didn’t matter.

“But what about the flag?” he asked.

“What about it?” I replied cautiously.

“What about respect for the military, people who have fought and died for that flag?”

“I think the flag represents what we are – or what we aspire to be – as a nation. I don’t believe Kaepernick intended to disrespect the flag specifically, or the military. I think he was protesting a national standard of racism that is not in step with our constitution or the principles upon which this nation was founded.”

(By the way, I really do speak with correct grammar and impeccable eloquence in casual conversation. Okay, not really. I’m paraphrasing because writing should look good, and what I’m writing is the essence of what was said by both parties.)

“But what about veterans?” he pressed.

Ah, yes. “I read a blog post recently by Jim Wright at Stonekettle Station, a man who was career Navy, I believe, where he answered a question about what he thought about the subject as a veteran. [And you can read his entire, most excellent, post here.] He wrote about Kap’s constitutional right to protest what he sees as a societal injustice, and that he himself served for that right, along with anyone’s right to disagree.” Yep, I’m a diplomat.

“Well, I didn’t fight for anybody’s right to piss on the flag. I fought for that flag. “

OK. Fair enough. Your reasons for serving are your own, sir.

“And I bet that guy wasn’t a combat vet. Anybody who fought on the ground fought for the flag.”

I feared that was an overgeneralization, but what do I know? I let that pass.

“I’m from Cincinnati, ” he continued. “And I’m damned if I can find anybody who agrees with me about this. “

“Well, yes, ” I agreed. “Seattle is a pretty live-and-let-live place. “

He snorted.

“But Kaepernick has to feel like an idiot now. All that shit he stirred up for himself. “

I shrugged. “He’s a big boy, he can take it.  He was probably counting on it. He’s a public figure, able to bring a lot of attention to a big problem through a visible and controversial action.”

“And now I hear the whole Seahawks team plans to protest the flag this Sunday. “

I shrugged again. I’m now pretty sure this guy isn’t incredibly perceptive to nuance,  or shades of gray, or semantics.

“These football players don’t have any right to protest anyway. The NFL is very good to its blacks.”

I boggled a little. Its blacks. Like black athletes are the NFL’s pets or something.

“They need to protest Obama. He’s the one’s got all the blacks stirred up, police videos and whatnot.”

Okay, I’ve got a bona fide bigot here, proselytizing at me. I bet he’s voting for Trump, which is absolutely his right, but where the hell is my bus?

“Abuse of police power and unfair targeting of blacks has been going on forever,” I said. “What’s new are the cameras in everyone’s hands and the Internet to get the evidence out there. “

“But when some thug has robbed a store and is running –“

Yes, he said “thug,” which is pretty much the new n-word. And that’s when I started to get pissed. To which discussion of political and touchy social subjects will almost always lead. And I interrupted him. Fair’s fair. He started this whole thing by interrupting my solitary, minding-my-own-business-esque phone scrolling.

“Had he been convicted of that theft? Even if he was, is that an offense punishable by death? Is resisting arrest a capital offense? Did that officer have the authority to try him, convict him, sentence him, and execute him, right then and there? That’s another thing our constitution is supposed to guarantee – due process under the law.”

Aarrgh. No, I do not believe all cops are bigots. I worked hand-in-glove with many cops for many years, as a 911 dispatcher and as a criminal defense paralegal. I’ve seen first-hand how heroic and humanitarian many cops are, and I’ve also seen first-hand just how many are power-drunk national incidents waiting to happen. It’s alarming. And as usual, the bad ones taint the reputations of the good ones, but that doesn’t mean the bad ones shouldn’t be weeded out and disciplined appropriately.

The bus pulled up. Finally.

“Well, of course it’s a tragedy, but –“

Oh, shut up with the but. That sentence should not have a but. It’s a tragedy, and that’s only the start of what it is.

I greeted the driver, tapped my pass against the fare meter, and looked around. The bus was nearly empty. But my new friend was right behind me, still yakking. Instead of taking an empty seat I sat right next to someone else, so the guy couldn’t sit next to me. Enough is enough.

Sure enough, instead of sitting in an empty row, Mr. Flag sat next to someone else as well.

” So, what do you think of Colin Kaepernick and his protest?” I heard him ask the woman next to him. Oh God, poor lady.

But poor him, too. As he tried yet again to find someone who agrees that Kap is a subversive antipatriot who should be drummed out of the NFL, if not the country, I could hear desperation in his tone.

And I remembered when I first arrived in Seattle, what a fish out of water I was. Not for its liberalness, no – that was heaven for me, being a hippie peace freak at heart and coming here from a virtually 100% conservative, Christian, Caucasian community where President Obama didn’t even bother to campaign and I was regularly offended by openly voiced bigotry. This guy was a product of Cincinnati. I Googled “Cincinnati racism,” and the top three results were articles touting Cincinnati as the most racist city in America. Shudder.

No wonder he sounded so lost. It wasn’t just a change of scenery, of learning new streets and local ordinances. His entire worldview was being challenged on a daily basis. Seattle does not have ghettos as ghettos are generally defined, but even the poorest neighborhoods are pretty racially integrated, which is atypical. Everywhere you go around here, you see black skin and Asian skin and Indian skin, hijabs and yarmulkes and saris and skinny jeans and yoga pants and Northface gear, often in surprising combinations. Seattle rings with the music of a dozen languages. I love it.

I remember when I’d just arrived in Seattle, like the Country Mouse come to the Big City, just set my suitcase on the sidewalk and looking around in dazed confusion. It wasn’t the politics or social attitudes  (“As long as you’re a Democrat we’ll like you just fine” one of my new co-workers had told me). It was learning city ways in general, on top of figuring out what street I lived on, public transportation, recycling (Seattleites will give you the hairy eyeball if you drop a recyclable or a compostable into the landfill bin), and umbrella etiquette – what are you supposed to do with the sopping wet thing anyway, just let it drip all over people’s carpets?  (I found a lovely lambskin handbag, with a separate lined umbrella pocket, in a second-hand shop for eight bucks – score! )

This man had it so much worse. What was probably a lifetime of brainwashing – because hatred and exclusion are not inherent – was being challenged on a daily basis. Racial tolerance, support for the homeless population, marriage equality before SCOTUS said so, legal marijuana – Washington is the new California when it comes to making legal moves to accept and grant equality to all people, with all their wild and crazy shit, as long as they aren’t hurting anyone else. For someone with rather, can I say backward, views on this stuff, it has to be pretty damned lonely. I believe in challenging archaic attitudes, which is why I continued the conversation with Mr Flag as long as I did, but even as I cut him off, I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for him. It can’t be easy to suddenly find yourself surrounded by people who think your life-long worldview is ugly.

To look at it from his point of view – which is what compassion requires – is to see that people he has been taught are inferior and frightening and sub-human are straining to take away something he believes he’s had his whole life – his superiority. People of color have had enough, and rightfully so, but even worse,  some white people are not only accepting and even encouraging that frightening rise of the unimaginable, they are condemning this man with looks and words when he tries to keep things as he is used to them, as he has been taught to believe they are supposed to be. And the learning is real.

I’ve never been an outright bigot, but I’ve been as guilty of unintentional racism as anyone else. I’ve subconsciously bought into the propaganda, before I learned critical thinking, to question authority and the status quo. I like to think the majority of white people are good people, who believe in equality as a desirable principle and who, when they think about it consciously, believe people are people, no matter their skin color. But that is what is so insidious about racism in this country – it is underneath, built into all the policies we deal with and the ways people of color are portrayed by the media, the way they are treated by law enforcement, by financial institutions, by education, by health care, by employment practices, by the “it’s-just-a-joke” jokes. Sometimes it’s not so subtle, as with the Red Cross poster that showed all the rule-breaking children as non-white, or the police department that uses targets with black people as the bad guys for their officers to target shoot. We absorb that stuff subliminally, and it doesn’t matter whether we have “good friends” who are black or Hispanic or Indian or Asian. When that has to compete against what the news and entertainment media and political rhetoric saturate us with, it’s not enough. The racism is still there, and it runs deep in the body of this nation, on a molecular level. Literally. Our brains have become hard-wired to it.

I remembered the day I figured out that “I don’t see color” is actually pretty dismissive and unintentionally bigoted (and don’t get me started on “White Pride” or #AllLivesMatter), and cringed at how many times I’d spouted that to my non-white friends and acquaintances – and how they generously tolerated my ignorance. Or maybe they tried to gently educate me, and I was too oblivious to get it. It’s entirely possible. And I’m sure I still do it without even knowing it. Every time I catch myself, I cringe all over again.

Metamorphosis sucks.

I think any action, short of violence, that draws attention is a valid one. Sometimes it comes down to ramming it down people’s throats. Perhaps Krystal Lake made an error in judgment by wearing her “America Was Never Great” hat to work, but when it comes to institutionalized racism and misogyny, that statement is absolutely true. This is how things change, by stirring them up. It’s not easy to train people to think differently from how they’ve been taught to think their whole lives. Along with stirring the pot, we have to educate, to foster awareness, to promote compassion from a place others can understand. We do this one person at a time, with the millions in mind. We openly challenge a status quo that still, decades after it was outlawed, holds racist beliefs nestled close within its very infrastructure, and by creating such a furor that maybe, just maybe, one or two or even a few hundred might start to get it. It’s not easy. It takes guts.

Meanwhile, Mr. Flag was now loudly castigating the entire Seahawks football team. The woman next to him heaved an exasperated sigh, put in earbuds, and stuck her face in a book. After another few minutes of futilely seeking agreement (kinda fruitless in a city that bleeds blue and green, no matter the political issue involved) and countless dirty looks, Mr. Flag finally subsided into sullen silence.

Compassion. We teach best not with fists or angry harangues, but by making calm, reasoned statements and setting a visible example.  We work to change our laws and enforce the ones we already have. We change our use of language, our media depictions and our popular representations. We hold on to our patience. We remember that change is damned hard and we keep working at it. We stand up and march, or we lie down and close a highway. We shut out a loudmouth on the bus.

Or we take a knee.

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Pabak Sarkar, used under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution license.

Courage and Compassion: You Don’t Have to Do it All at Once #1000Speak

It was a hell of a Monday.

For context, let me mention that I moved to Seattle to work for a woman who turned out to be the Boss from Hell, she whom I fondly refer to as the Horrendous Homunculus. As far as I’m concerned she is evil, possibly a narcissist and definitely an abuser, who, as abusers pick faults to focus on, picked my lack of knowledge about Microsoft Word to bash me over the head with (among other things). I left that job needing thousands of dollars in counseling and with a deep and abiding hatred for both the Homunculus (I have written about abuse in the workplace here and here with rather less cohesion here) and for Microsoft Word (which is less apt to be a trigger and you can read about here).

Fast forward three years and 100 therapy sessions, give or take. On this particular day the summer college quarter starts, and with it the class I am taking in Word, because “face your demons, ” “knowledge is power, ” “the best defense is a good offense, ” and all that happy stuff. Yes, I know three years is a long time. Did you know that exposure to what we’re scared of before we’re ready doesn’t accomplish anything and may well make things worse?  It’s true. Don’t try force exposure onto people with debilitating fears, please and thank you.

Let’s be clear. It took more courage than you can imagine for me to sign up for this Word class. Stupid as it may sound, I have awakened from nightmares in which Word is doing its evil self-aware Hal thing,  the word processing equivalent of refusing to open the pod bay doors, and I screwed up one indentation by one space and that bitch is shouting at me like I have literally just killed the whole world, and that really happened, by the way, and I never get back to sleep because of the panic attack that has surged from my overprotective amygdala. Hey, I won’t laugh at your unreasonable fears if you won’t laugh at mine, and that’s all we really need to be friends.

Anyway. Monday. Midmorning, I step out of my office and head to the lobby to check the mail. I glance into the parking lot and there she is, my nightmare, walking straight toward the glass doors and me, right on the other side of them. But no, this is not a nightmare. This is a storm freshened. I’m wide awake, at work, about to step down onto the landing of the stairs, walking straight toward someone I’d just as soon never see again. She’s there, for real. Her husband is with her.

Oh, God. This is a big city. Of all the (gin joints in all the towns in all the — no, wait, totally wrong) places to conduct any kind of business in this million-plus-population metropolitan area, what the hell is this bitch doing that requires she has to walk right into my territory?

My therapist told me later that my reaction to seeing the Horrific Homunculus was perfectly valid: “Run away! Run away! ” (It’s entirely possible I’ve been watching too much Monty Python lately.) Yes, I could have coolly said “Hello” as I walked on past like I didn’t even remember her, but I didn’t trust myself. I’d spent the previous weekend moving house, had just barely unearthed my underwear  in time to dress for Monday, and was feeling thrown-together and generally mussed. As these things always go, she was dressed to the nines and had every hair in place. My two-dollar stare would have failed me and deer-in-the-headlights would have taken over. I most likely would have tripped over an air pocket or something – those air pockets always show up when I really need to be graceful – and then probably would have ripped my pants as I fell.

So I went with a perfectly valid alternative – I retreated. I high-tailed it back up the stairs, face turned away so she couldn’t recognize me, back to my office, behind the safety of the door, praying she wasn’t on her way to consult building management about renting space in my building.  (She wasn’t.)

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Cityside 189/CC Share-Alike 4.0 License

I was faced with a test, and I bolted. And I’m fine with that.

Courage takes time, sometimes. Sometimes you can plug your nose and jump off the high rock into the cold water and have faith in your ability to swim and in those who are waiting to help you into the boat. (I did that once to face my fear of heights. I’m still terrified of heights, but it was hella fun, jumping off that rock.) Other times you need room for consideration and research and self-care and reassurance and prayer. Lots of time. I’m all about hiding behind the door when it comes to some things, but I’m all about empowerment, in my own good time, when it comes to other things. Whatever timetable is the one that suits you is the one you should use.

Besides, even without lingering fear and resentment, she was simply a disagreeable woman with a character flaw I despise. I have no desire to exchange pleasantries, or unpleasantries, with her. Maybe someday, if our paths cross again. Or not.

I still consider it a victory. A twofold victory. First, with the insults of Microsoft Word and the Horrid Homunculus showing back up in my life on the same day, and who believes that is a coincidence, certainly not I, the fact that I had managed to find my way out of a new neighborhood in a new city to arrive at work, on time, via new Metro routes, took on that much more personal significance. Second, I saw her before she saw me! The gods were smiling on me. Third – I guess it’s a threefold victory – halfway through the Word class, which I’m taking mainly to prove that I wasn’t the problem, even with assignments that get bolluxed up because Word is buggy as hell, which is the main reason I hate it, and Horrifying Homunculus never did explain to me why, if Word is so simple and everybody else in the world is smart enough to use it flawlessly so it’s obvious that I’m just an idiot, the template she gave me to work with was completely fucked up, in spite of that, I have a 4.0 right now. I don’t think I’m the problem.

Sit on that and spin, Homunculus. I’m winning this.

Read other posts on courage and compassion at the #1000Speak link-up here.

Shut Up and Hit Me

Sometimes I used to wish he would just hit me. He’d have it out of his system that much sooner, the injury would heal faster, and I’d have something visible to show, something people would take seriously. Sure, people close to me knew he was an asshole, but I couldn’t possibly be in such a position as to need help. Could I?

Scenario One: I’m scrolling around a website and idly remark to my husband*, “Someday I really am going to tour the Greek islands.” He rolls his eyes. “Oh, don’t be stupid,” he replies. “With your panic attacks? And where are you going to get that kind of money?”

I don’t answer. I sigh, and shut down the computer, and go to bed.

Scenario Two: I’ve settled in for an evening with the husband and kids. On the end table next to my chair are my drink, my glasses, the embroidery I’m working on, my cigarettes and lighter and ashtray.* Predictably, I eventually get up to go to the bathroom. When I return, my husband is now sitting where I’d been. Perplexed, I say nothing, just move my things and get comfortable in another chair.  Later, when I return from tucking our daughter into bed, my husband has moved again and is now sitting in the spot I’d moved to.

There are lots of other scenarios. “If we didn’t have all your hospital bills, we wouldn’t have any money problems.” “When are you going to get it through your thick skull that I wear the pants around here and your job is to shut up?” “No, we’re not watching that show. You only like stupid stuff.”

Now multiply this, two or three or a dozen times a day, every day, for years. Just stop and picture that.

Or is already familiar, because you live it already?

It’s crap like that, that makes you think you’re going crazy, wonder what’s wrong with your life, what’s wrong with you. Until you realize it’s not you at all.

It’s abuse.

No, maybe he doesn’t hit you. But it’s still abuse, designed to manipulate and control you and keep you down, keep you in your place, keep you theirs. Their ability to tear you down to nothing is limitless, their tactics legion. When The Troll ridiculed my Greek islands daydream he was telling me I was incapable, not good enough, and that my dreams were pointless and stupid. When he kept stealing the place I was sitting, he was keeping me off balance, reminding me I didn’t have a place in the world beyond what he allowed. (And it wasn’t just me. I’ve read of other abusers doing this same thing to other targets. Astounding.) And they do way more than that. If you take exception to something they say, you’re oversensitive or you can’t take a joke. They blindside you with accusations that have no basis in fact, they tell you your opinions and memories are wrong, they convince you they’d treat you well if you only deserved it, they blame all their problems on you. Many abusers won’t even permit their victims to work outside the home. They control all the money, the transportation, the communication. Even if your abuser doesn’t go that far, you still may end up isolated from other relationships. The abuser may discourage your other relationships by guilt-tripping you or accusing you of disloyalty or infidelity. Or it may be that your friends and family just don’t like the abuser, don’t feel comfortable. Maybe they believe you have chosen the asshole over them. My mother would not even come to my house, two blocks away from my sister’s, for the years I was married to The Troll. Beyond family holidays at which my family grudgingly included him, our social life was confined to his family and his friends.

How in the world are you going to have anyone to turn to for help? How likely are you to believe you even deserve help, when you’ve been convinced you’re a worthless piece of shit and your friends and family don’t talk to you anymore?

See how this works?

Of course it’s not all bad, not all the time. Abusers can be loving and magnanimous. They make up for the latest outburst against you so you won’t leave, they put on a display for others, they use gifts and loving treatment like carrots on a stick. The Troll used to celebrate special days lavishly – my birthday, Mother’s Day, our anniversary, Valentine’s Day, Christmas. Expensive jewelry or stereo systems, flowers all over the house, once a brand new car. Their generosity is very visible. If you try to talk to anyone about your unhappiness, all you get is, “That wonderful guy? But he treats you like a queen!” Um, yeah. When you can see him. And what about the 360 days a year that aren’t special? Abuse has cycles. Typically there are three stages: building tension, the explosion, and the make-up or honeymoon, when the abuser promises change and the victim wants so badly to believe.

Sometimes I used to wish he would just hit me. He’d have it out of his system that much sooner, the injury would heal faster (“stick and stones” is bullshit; cruel words and constant tearing down can scar for a lifetime), and, perhaps most importantly, I’d have something visible to show, something people would take seriously. Sure, people close to me knew he was an asshole, but I couldn’t possibly be in such a position as to need help. Could I?

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Pixabay/Counselling

And the thing is, even if people do recognize verbal and emotional abuse for what they are, they still don’t recognize the debilitating effect, popularly known as Battered Woman Syndrome. If you stay in such a relationship, you’re still stupid, or you must like it in some sick way, or some other stupid shit rationalization that is still used to judge abused people.

Just as the pattern of my abuse was a thousand thousand small things all knit together, it was something very small that finally set me free. I’d been calling around to borrow an evening dress for The Troll’s fancy-schmancy work Christmas party. “Oh, no,” he said grandly. “You’ve worked so hard, lost all that weight since the baby. You deserve to buy a new dress.” So I did, a killer find, a beauty of a velvet LBD for less than forty dollars. We partied, he was complimented endlessly on his beautiful wife, he beamed, we danced, I glowed. Surely this time everything would be all right. How could it not be, with magic like this?  About a week later, he saw the dress in a dry cleaning bag and just lost it, out of nowhere. Ranting and raving about all the unpaid bills, no food in the house, no money in the bank, and a useless stupid bitch of a wife who pisses away hundreds of dollars on a fucking dress. I stood there, feeling that stupid, dumbstruck expression on my face, again. Speechless. Blindsided. Again.

The only thing that made this incident different from hundreds of previous incidents was that this one was the breakthrough, the time the heavens opened and light shone down and a hidden truth stirred deep inside me. This was the time when bone-knowing finally happened.

This is your life. It was like a great Voice in my head. I finally knew that truth no one else can tell you, that I’d never be able to do anything right with this man because it wasn’t about me at all. It was about him. I also, finally, knew that it was never going to get better, no matter how much I tried, no matter how many things about myself I changed or hid or gave away, no matter how many eggshells I tiptoed across.That was the moment I knew I’d never be able to do anything right because it wasn’t about me at all.

Things were exactly the way he wanted them. And if I didn’t get out, this was how my life would always be.

His ranting was nothing more than another tactic, of course; more blindsiding whole cloth accusations on the tail of another honeymoon phase. The bills were indeed paid. Our cupboards and pantry were stuffed. There was money in the bank, too, and wasn’t he just furious when I took half of it as I left him.

I’d known none of the terminology when I figured out that I was, in fact, being abused. The only phrase that came to my mind was “mental cruelty,” a phrase I’d seen in various pulpy novels and that was not used in Nevada divorce law. A couple of years later, after our tortuous divorce was final, I chanced across The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans. I read it and marveled, wondering how the author had managed to hide a camera in my house, to read my journals. She was writing about me! I know now that book is a staple among counselors and therapists. Some excellent points taken from the book can be found here

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Pixabay/johnhain

It is also important to remember that it is not just heterosexual domestic relationships where this kind of abuse occurs. It takes place everywhere. Years after I escaped that horrific marriage, I endured the most miserable three months of my entire professional life when I moved to Seattle to work for a woman who turned out to be the Boss from the Seventh Level of Hell. The dynamic is the same: one person wants a healthy and happy relationship, the other wants to exercise ultimate control, and the abuse target is harmed, with consequences up to and including suicide and a perpetuated abuse cycle. The control-abuse dynamic is found in same-sex relationships, platonic friendships, between parents and children, between caregivers and dependents, between bosses and employees.

If you are a target in this cycle, there are two things you need to know:

It’s not your fault. You’ve been operating under the belief that both of you want the same thing: an honest, give-and-take relationship that is good for both of you. Your abuser has been lying to you. You’re not to blame for operating with integrity and trusting that other person. You don’t deserve it, you’re not stupid, and you’re not to blame.

There is help. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline to talk with someone and get resources to untangle yourself from the web. If yours is an employment situation I recommend the work of Drs. Ruth and Gary Namie.

What is the most important thing you can do if you think someone you know is being abused? Let them know you see what’s going on. Let them know you’re there to help. Don’t assume they “just know it.” They have been beaten and worn down, with words and with fists, to where they are no longer their true selves. Don’t push them to do anything they’re not ready to; just be there. Promise you’ll help when they’re ready, and keep your promise.

There’s a saying: “Hurt people hurt people.” That’s one reason abuse occurs, sure. People who hurt others are usually lashing out against those who have wounded them. But it’s not a justification. The cycle has to end. Every time one of us stands up to it, we help it to end.

*The husband referred to here is now an ex I call The Troll. My present husband, the Tominator, could never be such a flaming asshole.

**Don’t start. I’ve quit since these days.

#1000Speak: Forgiveness Sucks, So Let’s Try Something Different – Updated

Here I am again, awake. I have what may be the world’s worst insomnia. Tonight I’m not worrying about money or children or husbands, and it’s not noisy people. I was actually asleep, but a bad dream woke me up.

I moved to Seattle to take a job after no luck finding one in my home state of Nevada for a year. It should have been my dream job, stepping up to the big leagues of paralegal-dom after many years working for country, but good, lawyers. It should have been a whole new vista for me, an exciting new professional experience in an exciting new city in beautiful new country.

It was the job from hell. Seriously. In my 40 years in the work force, I could not imagine a more horrific experience. I suspect my boss was a true narcissist, and I’m dead certain she was emotionally and mentally abusive. In current nomenclature, I was bullied mercilessly. The three months I worked at that firm was the longest, most horrific time I can remember aside from one marriage I’ve worked hard to block from recall. It should be noted that the dynamics of an abusive intimate relationship and an abusive employment relationship are extremely similar. That job and that woman damaged me. I needed counseling to get past the worst of it.

I’m still damaged. What woke me up a little while ago was a dream that I was right back there, working for that harridan again. I woke gasping, with the electricity of a panic attack running through my veins.

Great.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve moved on with living my life, and I’ve accomplished a lot since then. I stayed in counseling for a year and unpacked a lot of things. I made the decision to return to school, excelling at that and enjoying it, and I have another job I more or less enjoy too. It doesn’t challenge me and the pay is middlin’, but I don’t bring any work stress home at night either, and that’s worth a lot. I am the only person in my office; I run the whole damn state for my company and for the most part, I like that solitude and independence just fine. If some jerk brings donuts into the office when I’m cutting out sugar, well, I have no one to blame but myself. To further my healing, I considered writing her a letter but opted instead for scathingly honest review on Glassdoor, and if it saves even one person from what I went through, I’m glad.

And yet, here I am dreaming about that horrid woman, and still losing sleep to her, three years down the road. What gives?

I was lying there, having burned one of my precious few anxiety pills and trying to read a bit of War and Peace in the hopes I could return to sleep, when I realized it.

Forgiveness.

And then: Why should I? That bitch hurt me. She’s hurt lots of people, that I know of; I was far from her first. Why does she deserve anything from me?

And the truth is, she doesn’t.

And I know the platitude, that forgiveness isn’t for the other person, it’s for you, and I kinda believe that, but then again, I don’t believe it at all. To forgive is to absolve the person of what they did, and I’m just not going to do that. She’s accountable, past and future, because I know she’s still doing it to others who were looking forward to a terrific position just as I was. When I was there I saw payroll records for three other legal assistants in the eight months before I arrived. Add me, that’s four in a year. She’s accountable. I might not be willing to confront her any more directly than an anonymous online employment review, probably because I loathe conflict with a flaming purple passion, but it’s what I can do.

No, what popped into my head from the depths of I-don’t-know-how-long-ago was another definition of forgiveness I heard once attributed to Oprah, I think it was, and I’m not a fan of Oprah, but I’m a fan of this definition, because it works:

Forgiveness is giving up the wish that things had been different.

And as I lie there still unable to go back to sleep but also unable to unscramble the letters on the pages of War and Peace, I realized that’s what I need to work with.

I am not making the buckets of money I did, briefly, at that firm. I do not have the nice house, and the nice new car and maybe a truck for the Tominator, and long weekend trips up to Vancouver and Whistler and a canoe for all the lakes around here. I do not have a 401(k) and killer health insurance. I do not have the prestige of high-end law firm experience in a posh downtown office tower. And that’s what I should have had. It’s what I’d worked for, for so long. It’s what I was offered when I left my family behind, left my home with my Mother’s Day rosebushes tended lovingly in the yard, and dragged the Tominator and Dream Girl and my stuff up here, and I should have it. I was robbed.

Yeah, I know. Shit happens and who said life was fair, suck it up buttercup. But underneath it, as superficial as it sounds, I am angry about that. Still. I moved up here for professional and financial advancement but here I am, scraping by from paycheck to paycheck, as I have for most of my life.

But on the other hand, as I struggle through many of my days, one of the first things I count when I’m reminding myself of all I have to be thankful for is that I no longer work for that Medusa. I may not have what I should have had, but I have enough, and I’m away from her, and I’m nowhere near anyone remotely like her, and that should be nothing but good.

I don’t have to absolve that woman of anything, but I can give up my wish that it had worked out. I can do something radical, even, and wish for something good tomorrow instead of in the past.

New entry on tomorrow’s to-do list. Make that today’s to-do list; cruising up on one a.m.

I’m going to try to get some sleep now. And even if I don’t, even if tomorrow – no, today – is another day I have to wade through in a sleep-deprived fugue state, I know one thing I can work on toward my own brand of forgiveness: I can wish forward instead of wishing behind.

It’s a start.

Update: Yesterday I was scrolling through job listings, thinking it might be time to go for an upgrade, and I see this Hagatha is advertising for a new victim paralegal. The ad doesn’t list the firm but I know her writing style, and the location is the same. Oh, God, all I can do is pray for the poor sacrificial virgin new hire. Another one. A therapist can make a career out of this woman’s employees.

Poof! You’re a Tree: #1000Speak

Acceptance is so very, very hard. The one thing it absolutely requires is suspension of judgment, true absence of judgment, something few of us are very good at.
One thing I am learning, slowly, as I struggle uphill through my haphazard life, is that if we’re going to be able at all to accept the world around us and the people in it, the first thing we need to be able to accept is ourselves.
This month’s #1000Speak post is not a how-to or a how-I-got-here or a here-is-what-I’ve-learned. It’s random thoughts, mainly, on something I need to get a lot better at. But I didn’t realize that at first. As usual, I was struggling with what to write this month.
And then I saw this on Facebook the other day, and it was perfect:

I can’t credit the author of the meme, but I can tell you that it came from the Facebook page of Tree Sisters, and I love it. Trees and Ram Dass; what’s not to love?
I struggle horribly with acceptance. Like so many, I’m a lot more forgiving and accepting of others than I am of myself. (Well, except for bigots and Kardashian fans. We’ve got nothing to talk about.)
The different body types. Oh Lord, is this a peeve of mine, the notion that an imperfect body denotes a imperfect person, and don’t even get me started on my loathing for the ridiculous standards of beauty rampant in this country. I’m the first to defend anybody else for not being physically “perfect” (whatever that’s supposed to be anyway), but I’m the first to criticize myself. I remember when Dream Girl was little and she asked me why people love other people who are ugly, and I told her that no one who is loved is ugly, because love makes people beautiful. I would do well to remember that I am loved, and therefore I am beautiful.
Personal faults. How silly is it, to be accepting and understanding of the faults of others but not to extend that same grace to myself? This is not an excuse to decide I don’t need to try to become a better person. I believe that’s one of the things we’re living this life for – to evolve. But it is a reminder that as much as I want to be better, I am also exactly where I’m supposed to be. If I was supposed to be somewhere else, that’s where I’d be. As long as I don’t stop striving, it’s okay to cut myself some slack.
The views and opinions of others. Yes, even bigots and Kardashian fans. Each of us here is evolving, in our way and in our own time, with our own unique histories and memories and battle scars and fears and windmills to tilt at. No perception of the world around us is without stain or skew. We’re all learning. Some of us are a little further along than others, and not for one second am I claiming I’m any further than anyone else. Except Kardashian fans. No, wait — them too. And yes, even bigots.
So, back to Ram Dass. How awesome is that quote, how perfectly true? We see a tree, or a flower, or a star, and we don’t criticize it. We may analyze it and classify it and place it in a certain context, as it paints part of our picture of the world for us, but we don’t criticize it. It just is.
Acceptance.
And that’s how I’m going to look at this from now on.
I’m a tree.
You’re a tree.
And how much do I love trees?
Some of my favorite trees. Founders Grove, Humboldt Redwoods
State Park, California.
Time, and judgment, stand still.

The Only Way to the Other Side is Through

“…It is the time of burning, hate exposed.
We shall have to live with only Kali near.
She comes in her fury, early or late disposed
To tantrums we have earned and must endure.”
In a previous #1000Speak post I wrote that I hate certain people. That seems a jarring juxtaposition with the concept of compassion.
I was talking about the period of time after I’d left a horrible husband and was just trying to make it through divorce proceedings without my children and I being eaten alive by the machinations and manipulations of a vengeful, angry man whose lawyer rated just this side of shyster. I was talking about the arrival of Kwan Yin and my life, and a beautiful, affirming experience that has stayed with me all these years. And I wrote “I fucking hate those people,” and I didn’t edit that sentence out despite the theme of the post…compassion.
But…compassion doesn’t have room to fucking hate someone…does it?
It does.
I also wrote about being determined to take the high road and to stay positive, to refuse to be drawn down to the level of petty spite and tit-for-tat shenanigans that so many divorces are composed of. It was a lofty goal, and one I kept to, and I was proud of myself for not taking one action or speaking one word I could regret.
But divorces take a long time to be finally over, even after the ink is dry on the papers, when there are property issues and especially when there are children. Long after our particular divorce was final, my ex kept it up. I won’t go into it other than to say if there was a Stupid Pet Trick he could pull, he pulled it. Anyone who has been through an acrimonious divorce knows of what I speak. Every time, I sighed and laughed it off, continuing to take the high road — until that one big one that I just couldn’t laugh off.
Really, after crap like this has been going on for years now, how can it not become a bubbling pit of noxious green in a smoking landscape? What’s surprising is that it took as long as it did. Because what I saw, finally, was that I had not escaped the abuse at all. I’d merely escaped close physical proximity. As long as there was anything binding us together, he was going to keep trying to control and manipulate and inflict injury every chance he got, and it didn’t matter to him if he hurt his own child in the process.
Boiling point reached.
One evening, I blew. I mean, blew. I ranted, I raged, I threw things (sorry, but when I let my temper go, it’s the kind that only the sound of breaking glass can assuage), and before I knew it, I was screaming, “I hate that goddamned son of a bitch!”

Finally the storm blew itself out and I collapsed onto the couch. I was hoarse, shaking, out of breath, and utterly appalled at myself. Who was that horrible woman, screaming her fury and shredding an invisible face with her hands and stomping all over invisible guts on her living room floor? This was not the person I wanted to be. That was not the emotion I wanted to be filled with. This was not the evil I wanted to be reduced to. Feeling disgusted with myself, like a failure, I crawled into bed and cried myself to sleep. Again.
But then something happened.
Public Domain.

When I woke up the next morning, the sky seemed bluer. The birds sounded sweeter. I know it sounds smarmy, but it’s true. My kids both seemed happier, for some strange reason, and so did I. I felt lighter, almost like I was walking an inch above the kitchen floor as I poured cereal and coffee. I felt freer. As I checked backpacks and kissed  my children out the door to the school bus stop, I knew we would be all right. And we were. As simplistic as it sounds, it’s true: things got better.

And then I knew that I hadn’t lowered myself at all. What I had done was to release something that had been inside me, eating at me this whole time. Anger and hurt are like an infection under the skin. No, not like – that’s what they are. Pretending it’s not there accomplishes nothing; it only makes you sicker without you even knowing it, until all of a sudden it brings you down. If you don’t acknowledge its presence and lance it and get the poison out, the infection will spread. You will not be free of it until you admit that it’s there and get rid of it. The earth stops shaking and rumbling when the volcano blows. No sacrificial virgin required.
I had no need to feel guilty, either. I’d been afraid that my negative feelings would do damage if I let them out, but I had it backward. They do damage when you don’t let them out. (Reminds me of a doctor I used to see, who told me my ulcers would ease up if I’d just learn to be a bitch.) My anger hadn’t hurt my ex at all. But it had set me free to do the work I needed to do, to clear the landscape and build anew.
Kwan Yin’s gift to me was many things. It was a nod from the Universe, that I was handling things and myself correctly. It was falling and skinning my knee and being drawn onto the comfort of a lap, with no minimizing, just “there there” and all the hugs and reassurance I needed. It was a call to serve, to have compassion for those in my life and for those I don’t know at all and will probably never meet again. And perhaps most of all, it was a reminder that I deserve to be taken care of too, and that means shining a light into dark corners and getting the bad things out. Doing what we need to do for us: self-compassion.
I sat down to write this #1000Speak post on building from bullying based on my own recent experience with workplace bullying and the Demon Boss from the Seventh Level of Hell, and that is when I realized that I haven’t built anything from it. Not really. I’d sought counseling when I was in the middle of it, and I’d identified it, and I’ve escaped it. I’ve made enough progress that I am no longer a stew of anxiety, worry and fear thrumming through my veins like electricity and tears always ready to brim and sleeping one or two hours a night, if that. But I haven’t gone much beyond that. I’ve found refuge in school and a job where my talents are utilized and appreciated, but I haven’t built. In spite of getting out alive and moving on, I still feel helpless, I still feel worthless, I still feel sad. I am still afraid.

The poison is still there.

Photo: niecyisms

This is the part that really sucks: Even though I didn’t do this to myself, and I am where I am because someone else behaved in a cruel way toward me, it’s still me who has to do the work to get out of it. And there is work to do. Bullying and abuse hurt. They harm. They cause injury and lasting pain that most of us aren’t capable of just bouncing back from. A band-aid doesn’t cut it. And even though it isn’t fair, we, the injured ones, are the only ones who can do the work to make ourselves right again. They do the damage, but we pay the price if we want to get back straight.

It’s not fair. Who ever said life was fair? It has to be done. Cruel people knock us down, but it’s not until we allow them to keep us down that they win.

“…Kali, be with us.
Violence, destruction, receive our homage.
Help us to bring darkness into the light,
To lift out the pain, the anger,
Where it can be seen for what it is–
The balance-wheel for our vulnerable, aching love.”
      ~ May Sarton, Invocation to Kali, from the collection Grain of Mustard Seed (Norton: New York)       1971

My beloved Kwan Yin is always there for me, always, but now it’s time for Kali, time to tear down some noxious walls and dig up some poisonous weeds. Then I can build.

Walking You Home

“We’re all just walking each other home.” ~ Ram Dass

I was flattered when I was invited to take part in #1000Speak, and I’m honored to be here. As much as I myself suck at it sometimes, I’m all about compassion, and I couldn’t wait to be a part of something even bigger than the blogosphere, to be a drop in the rolling wave of human kindness, to be a part of being the village.
Then I thought about what I wanted to write about compassion. What did I want to say? What is the point that I want to make?
I can effortlessly write a bonkzillion words about domestic abuse, about bullying, about homelessness, about energy reform and caring for this beautiful blue sphere we call home. I can rant about racism and intolerance, because my loathing for bigotry probably makes me a bigot about bigots. I have a lot of topics that are absolutely deserving. But which one? They were all so tempting.

I had to bark my mental shins on the coffee table about a dozen times before I finally had the sense to see it.

Everything I’d thought of, the ones that came easily and immediately to my mind, none of them counted. Not for this post.
It’s easy to be compassionate when it involves a cause we care about, something we have a personal stake in for whatever reason. I’m an endless well of compassion for targets of bullying or abuse. I’ve been there. Poverty and homelessness are causes that come naturally to me as well. Bigotry, as I said.
But those things aren’t a challenge. And what I can’t help feeling about #1000Speak is that while it should be humane and uplifting and inspiring, it should also be just a little bit hard. It’s like the parable about the rich man and the beggar who both give a silver penny: which one gave more?
The answer, then, is to look in a place where it’s not so easy.
It can be hard to admit that there is a certain someone, a certain class of people, whether it’s the homeless, or battered women, or a particular race, or illegal immigrants, or fat people, or addicts, or people who like peanut-butter-and-pickle sandwiches, whom we think are not as entitled as we are to…anything, really. It’s the people we consider to be pathetic wastes of oxygen at the least (Kim Kardashian, anyone?) or consider to be evil personified at the worst (such as The Demon Boss from the Seventh Level of Hell). And those hard places that I’m loathe to even admit exist, those are the places I should be looking.

Go ahead. Set aside the justification, and you know it’s there. They’re only homeless because they don’t want to get off their lazy asses. They must like being knocked around or they wouldn’t stay. They can stop if they really want to. They have no right to mooch off of honest hard-working people. Their skin is a different color from mine or they worship the wrong god or they love different people than I do, and that makes them evil and it’s my duty to hate them. You know how the tune goes.

That’s the one. That one, there. The one that really makes you wrinkle up your nose, brings disgust welling up out of your gut, really makes you feel like that doesn’t belong in my face, in my space, on my planet. The one that you just can’t find it in yourself to be kind about, no matter how hard you try.
It’s time to get past that “no matter how hard you try” part. In the words of the great Yoda, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
And looking, I see it. Just scroll up a few paragraphs and it’s right there. The ones I ultimately have no patience with, no sympathy for, would like to see jettisoned off into cold blue space, are the abusers and the bullies. If I’m going to be a part of this movement that’s worth anything, if I’m going to walk the walk like I talk the talk, then I have to own it. Bullies and abusers: I fucking hate those people. (And yes, the expletive is necessary. It is a small verbal indicator of my abhorrence, and it means something here. That’s what words are for.)
The Queen of Digression now digresses. Several years ago, I had taken my children and left an abusive husband. I was living paycheck-to-not-even-paycheck, anxiety and depression threatening to overwhelm me amidst the stalking and death threats and his suicide/manipulation attempt in my living room. I was determined in spite of it all not to give in to my natural Scorpio tendency to lash out in a fury of righteous vengefulness and utterly decimate him – legally, in open court. I was determined not to sink to his level and to keep to the high road. I kept reminding myself that he hurt me because he himself was hurting and empty. I took more deep breaths and counted to 10 more times than I can count. I deflected, I cast protection, I cried myself to sleep, I prayed. And as I slogged through day after changeless day, I had never felt so alone.
Until the night, after several months of this, I had one of the most realistic dreams I have ever had.
I was looking down at myself, watching from above as a flower and words that I knew to be poetry, in a language I couldn’t read, were tattooed onto my lower back. I felt the needles, I saw the vibrant colors, I could smell the scent of the living flower being embroidered into my flesh. I didn’t need to understand the poetry to know it was the lyrics of the cosmos. The whole dream was heartbreakingly beautiful, and I felt at peace as I never had in my life. I woke weeping, tears of comfort and release, with the sure knowledge that everything would be all right, that I was loved and Someone Up There was seeing me through all of this. Along with the images, I had a sounds-like in my head. I called in sick to work (sorry, John) and fired up the computer and consulted the Great Google with my sounds-like, and there she was.
Kwan Yin, Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva in Sanskrit. Kwan Yin is a Buddhist goddess of the sea and of compassion, the Mother of Mercy. A bodhisattva, she is often shown sitting on a lotus blossom, symbolizing the purifying of the soul as it struggles through suffering up to the godhead. One of her epithets is She Who Hears the Cries of the World. She is said to have 10,000 arms, to comfort all who suffer. If you call her in need, she will answer.
I learned some time later that the tattoo on the base of my spine was meaningful too. That is where kundalini energy is coiled inside us like a snake, the spiritual energy that purifies our spirits and helps to unite us with truth and divinity.
That dream is one of the most profound things that has ever happened to me. I’d had virtually no knowledge of Buddhist practices and had never heard of Kwan Yin. I did not doubt at all that she was there, that she had answered a call I hadn’t even consciously sent, and that she was calling me in return. Because one truth I was left with was that I was very right to have compassion for a man who had treated me as though I was merely a possession and not even fully human. As hard as it had been, and would continue to be, that was the only right way to treat him, because in the grand Universal end, it matters. And the other truth I was left with was that it matters because what I give for others, for him, was also there for me. As alone and broken as I felt, I was cared for. We are all children of the Universe, and we are all worthy of kindness.
All. Even Kim Kardashian. Even The Demon Boss from the Seventh Level of Hell. Perhaps especially her. This is where it gets so very hard, for me.
Back to #1000Speak and the point of this whole post. Compassion is impossible alongside judgment and condemnation, and to refrain from judging and condemning can be one of the hardest things ever. As I think back to the cruelty I’ve seen people exhibit, and the satisfaction some of them seem to take in it, I am certainly not inspired to want to be compassionate toward them. It actually makes my stomach roil a little just to think about them. And this is the part where I stub my toe and hop around on one foot, cussing at the Universe. Who am I to call them pots without making myself into a kettle? I’ve been a waste of oxygen many times. I’ve been cruel to others in order to feel better about myself, too. Oh, yes I have. And that makes my stomach roil even more, to admit that I am one of them.
But there is compassion for me. I am getting better at being compassionate toward myself, and I know why I behaved as I did, and if everyone else is just as human as I, then anyone else is entitled to be imperfect as I was. If I am entitled to compassion, so are they. I am reminded that I need to grant all of these people the same grace I extended to my now-ex, the same grace Kwan Yin gifted to me that night. I need to remember that people abuse other people because they are trying to feed their own hunger for love, trying to fill their own voids of emptiness and lift themselves up. Their reasons were my reasons.
This is what it all comes down to. My experience is theirs, and theirs is mine. If I look closely enough at them, I will realize that I am gazing into a mirror, and will see my own self yearning back at me. We are all walking different paths to the top of the same mountain.
Make no mistake, this does not mean I have to invite these people into my life. Just because I recognize the need to save an endangered species doesn’t mean I’m foolish enough to share my house with one, like, say, an alligator. I deserve better than The Boss Who Shall Not Be Named, and I’m not going to stop reading Ronald Takaki so I’ll have time to be a Kardashian groupie. I cannot link to my ex (“Throw Your Darts HERE!”) because he has been excised from my life, and rightfully so. But that doesn’t have to keep me from looking upon them with something more than derision or venom. For some, it is even possible for me to say the few words or perform the one small act that can help them see, help them feel, help them know that they are not alone and that solace and and empathy and a twining upward to the Sun are there for them, too.
It is true that what we put out is what we get back, that we reap what we sow, that like attracts like. When we extend ourselves to others, we create a ripple in a Universal pond of energy, and add mojo to the big circle of connection that runs like the strands of a silvery web, one to the other.

And we are all just walking each other home.

 Daniel Racovitan, used under Creative Commons license