What if women, in this county and around the world, were to link arms across divides, including color, class, faith, sexual preference, and nationality, to demand a more loving and just world. A “no” to greed, bigotry, and war. A “yes” to compassion, caring, and peace.
Sound like too big a fantasy? But in dark times, don’t we need a few visions, even if they might initially strike us as air castles?
Consider the story of Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee. who organized women of different faiths and walks of life to protest together for peace in their war-torn country. Dressed in white and sitting by a fish market in the hot sun, the women braved the local warlords to demand peace negotiations. When those negotiations began but stalled, Leymah took a delegation of women to the site of the negotiations in nearby Ghana. The women blocked the building’s doors and windows and refused to leave until the men inside negotiating reached an agreement. When security forces tried to arrest the women, Leymah threatened to disrobe.
She knew that according to traditional beliefs, disrobing would bring a curse upon the men. The security forces backed down. The event was later seen as a turning point in the peace process.
Or Dr. Alice Min Soo Chun, an immigrant to the U.S. from South Korea, whose activism was triggered by her son’s asthma. She remembers hearing the saying, “A worried mom does better research than the FBI.” Soon, she was studying about asthma, air pollution, and learning about the number of people around the globe living without access to electricity. She imagined a solar solution. As a professor of architecture and material technology at the Parsons School for Design, she challenged herself and her students to come up with a solution an individual could use in a disaster. The result was a self-inflating solar light called the “SolarPuff” that could allow communities without access to electric power to function. When Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, she sent three thousand SolarPuffs to the Mayor of San Juan. She later visited the island and distributed SolarPuffs to schools so that children could do their homework at night and households could function. She told the children, “Even more powerful than the sun is the light in your mind, your imagination.”
Or Daisy Bates, who defied racism and threats to her life to co-found the Arkansas State Press, and later made sure that the schoolchildren called the “Little Rock Nine” were able to enter school safely as they desegregated the Arkansas school system. Last year, the Governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, signed a bill ordering that a statue of Daisy replace that of a white supremacist as one of the two Arkansas statues in the US Capitol.
Why don’t we all demand that statues of African American women replace the Confederate “heroes” in the U.S. Capitol buildings?
I found these and many amazing stories of resilience in The Book of Gutsy Women by Hilary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton.
I admit that I’d let my library copy of the book sit on my bedstand for two months, untouched. (COVID has extended my library loan!) I was dubious about a book by celebrities, and I thought that it might be the kind of simplified, sanitized history one foists on middle schoolers.
When I finally started reading it, I decided I needed my own copy to keep on my bedstand for inspiration. I read stories of women from around the globe, many well known, some less so. I read stories of women of color, indigenous women, white women, straight women, trans women, lesbian women…a smorgasbord of genius and greatness. I read stories of grit, tragedy, inventiveness, resilience, and tenacity.
Many of the women had suffered abuse, threats, even torture, yet transformed their pain into a commitment to better the world for others.
Of course, for every woman featured in the book, many of whom Hillary knew personally, there are thousands more (millions?) who deserve to be known. (Like the civil rights activist Pauli Murray whom I featured two weeks ago.)
So a vision of women locking arms together for change might not be that crazy.
Gutsy is contagious. When you read what these women have done, you gain faith in the future.
Now for a moment of joy:
I loved the following moment when an African-American mother finds out her daughter had been accepted into law school.
I’ve read a lot about trauma and somatics, (the body as we perceive it from within), and have done trauma recovery work myself, so I was excited that Menakem was bringing the body into the conversation about race in America.
Caveat: I’m a privileged white woman with a steep learning curve ahead of me about my role in perpetuating an unjust and racist world.
Without denying the needs for systemic social, political, economic, and judicial change, Menakem believes that both white-Americans and African-Americans hold what he calls “white-body supremacy” locked in their bodies. It influences our instinctual responses to fight, flight, or freeze in a situation. To free ourselves from our trauma-based responses, we need more awareness of the pain we carry within and how to work with it.
As an African-American expert in trauma therapy, Menakem has worked with blacks, whites, and blues (members of the police). The trauma of white-body supremacy affects members of all three groups differently, and the approach to healing needs to be different as well.
An event does not have to be deadly or horrific to trigger trauma.
“Trauma is anything the body perceives as too much, too fast, or too soon. Whenever trauma is involved, the first step in mending any relationship—or any emotional dysregulation—involves working through that trauma. And in order for someone to do that trauma work, he or she must first learn to slow down, observe his or her body, and allow it to settle.”
Our unprocessed fear reactions may show up in a slight hesitation, cringe, or a frisson of fear, when approached by a member of a different group, any of which may be tied, if but for a moment, back to white-body supremacy.
When we can’t deal with our pains, fears, and experience of abuse, we store them in the body as trauma.
Instead of dealing cleanly with our pain, we project it on to others, especially when we are afraid, triggered, and caught in the spell of white-body supremacy.
Once again, this month, we saw the tragic consequences.
What to do
Science is teaching us that fear, trauma, and prejudice can be passed down, on a cellular level, between generations. White-body supremacy goes back centuries. Many of us born in this country carry a legacy of fear deep in our bodies.
No matter how enlightened our beliefs may be, we need to consider what was loaded into our cells.
Although we can say racist reactions are very wrong (for example, the dog walker in Central Park who called the police on an African-American birder), we can’t change our beliefs by thinking alone, that is, without noticing bodily responses and our deeds. The fact that the woman claimed, “I’m not racist,” illustrates the gap that can exist between beliefs and behavior.
A personal example
Here’s how my personal trauma got mixed with a white version of white-body supremacy.
When I moved to New York City, I was mugged at gunpoint days after I arrived. I was staying with a cousin in Brooklyn Heights, not too far, it turned out, from a large housing project. I went to the corner convenience store around 7 pm for some yogurt and noticed a man buying Twinkies whose behavior seemed a little odd. My intuition didn’t register that he was casing me out.
Moments after leaving the store, he approached me with a gun and demanded, “Give me your purse.” Shaking, I handed it to him and he fled.
Physically speaking, no harm had been done. I hadn’t been hurt, and my losses, while inconvenient, were repairable. I learned to become aware of my surroundings when I walked in the city at night.
After the mugging, though, when I was alone on a street and saw a tall African-American man who looked like my assailant approaching me, my heart beat wildly and I felt a wave of reactive panic, even knowing that the sight of an African-American man did not necessarily spell danger.
I didn’t think much about the incident until years later when I attended a Story Bridge event and was paired with a man who looked a lot like my assailant. As we shared our stories, I fell in love with this stranger before me. As my heart opened, my body softened. We hugged. A wounded part of me let go.
Even with that healing, I have far to go to address the ways in which I still hold on to white body-supremacy.
When it comes to freeing the trauma held in our bodies, talk-therapy may not be the best solution. The field of trauma care has developed gentle, body-based tools like Somatic Experiencing (Menakem is a practitioner,) to help us shake off and release trauma and reset the body’s nervous system.
One key to this process is learning how to settle ourselves. Menakem suggests learning to recognize when your body feels safe and at ease, and when it feels tense and threatened. With time, we can learn to find a place of safety and calm we can return to in ourselves.
Even as we protest for bold and urgent action to change unjust systems, the body requires a different approach. My experience is that it responds best to gentleness, compassion, and small steps. The body never asked for the pain that it bears. A body that’s been traumatized needs kindness and patience while it learns that it can change and let go and still be safe.
When talking about race makes us physically uncomfortable, let’s not hide from what our bodies are saying, but gently work with and through it.
We can pause, breathe, listen. We pay attention to reactions in our bodies as we speak to people who are different from us.
Hopefully, when we learn to safely release both the personal and cultural trauma caught inside of us, we can stop acting on it and passing it on to the next generation.
“I think what it means to be human is to realize that we’re ever-emerging and that we are not machines…And for me, what that means is that it’s about work. It’s about action. It’s about doing. It’s about pausing. It’s about allowing — the reason why we want to heal the trauma of racialization is that it thwarts the emergence…Let’s condition and create cultures that will allow that emergence to reign supreme…”
Let’s do the work so that our better angels can continue to emerge.
Last week was tough, for me, for many, filled with horrific images and the sadness that my country, the United States, is not living up to its ideals. While being confronted by the harsh realities of systemic discrimination, I sought stories that offered me pictures of resilience, perseverance, and hope.
I found them in the biography of an African-American woman I had never heard of, but should have, Pauli Murray.
She is one of the heroes of the twentieth-century, an activist, feminist, lawyer, poet, and priest who helped shape the course of our history.
Today, a residential college at Yale, where she earned a doctorate in law (JSD), is named for her. The Episcopal church canonized her as a saint they recognized “for her advocacy of the universal cause of freedom and as the first African American female priest ordained by the Episcopal Church.”
Her life is too big to summarize in a post, but, in just eleven minutes, the above video does a good job of highlighting her life.
She knew injustice
Throughout her career, Murray worked for civil and human rights.
In 1940, 15 years before Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, Murray refused to go to the back of the bus while traveling through Richmond, Virginia. She was arrested and jailed. She organized sit-ins in Washington, DC in the 1940s. She worked with the Workers’ Defense League on the defense of Odell Waller, an African American sharecropper found guilty by an all-white jury and sentenced to death for the murder of his landlord. That experience propelled her to go to law school.
As a lawyer, she helped shape the Civil Rights movement.
Thurgood Marshall called her book States’ Laws on Race and Color, ‘the ‘bible’ of the Civil Rights Movement.
In her memoir she wrote:
“Seeing the relationship between my personal cause and the universal cause of freedom released me from a sense of isolation…I would be no less afraid to challenge the system of racial segregation, but the heightened significance of my cause would impel me to act in spite of my fears.”
She faced systemic discrimination at every turn
As an African American woman born in the first part of the century, she faced on-going discrimination. The University of North Carolina rejected her graduate school application because of her race. She went to Howard Law School (one of two women) and graduated top of her class. Even though Harvard University always reserved a place for the Howard Law valedictorian, it turned her down because she was a woman.
Cornell University denied her a faculty position because her references, Eleanor Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall, and Phillip Randolph, were considered too radical in the McCarthy era.
Murray did ground-breaking legal work on sex discrimination that Ruth Bader Ginsburg used while preparing the briefing for Reed v. Reed, the historic Supreme Court case. Although Murray didn’t contribute directly to the case, Ginsburg valued her work so highly that she named Murray as a co-author of the brief.
She was complex and multi-faceted
She was small, feisty, gracious, and not afraid to speak truth to power.
She was a co-founder of NOW. (National Association of Women.) She published books of poetry as well as a book about her family and the 600-page memoir I’m reading now: Song in a Weary Throat.
She struggled with her gender identity and considered herself “gender nonconforming.” Perhaps that was part of why she faded from history, at least for a while.
She never stopped following her values and giving
At age 62, she entered seminary studies, and in 1977 she became the first African American woman ordained in the Episcopal church. When she was forced by the church to retire at 72, she became a priest for the hospitalized and homebound people in Alexandria, VA.
Despite all the injustice she witnessed or experienced, she never gave up on herself or the country.
She wrote, in 1945:
“As an American, I inherit the magnificent tradition of an endless march toward freedom and toward the dignity of all mankind.”
She worked with Presidents and counted the Roosevelts as her friends, but she shunned the limelight.
She failed, again and again, being ahead of her time, but eventually shaping the times.
“In not a single one of these little campaigns was I victorious. In other words, in each case, I personally failed, but I have lived to see the thesis upon which I was operating vindicated. And what I very often say is that I’ve lived to see my lost causes found.”
In a world overfilled with bluster, in which religion gets reduced to a photo op and oppression is still systemic, voices like Murray’s give me hope.
First of all, it’s OK. Whatever you are feeling, or doing, it’s OK
Life today is not normal.
How can we hope for normalcy when planetary normalcy has been disrupted? It takes courage, daily, to stand tall and say to ourselves, “This is the new normal.”
Given the current global realities, together with our personal variations, it’s hard not to let an invisible wave of worry seep into us.
I’m finding it hard to let go of expectations of what I “should” be doing. I think I “should be” doing better.
It’s been difficult to write. I’ve been making false starts, often running out of steam in the back alleys of my mind. I have the time, so why is my output so low?
My writer friend Mindy and I both refer to our “fuzzy brains.”
My vision of the future and my hope condition how I see today, even as I want to “live more in the now.” Nothing is predictable.
I’m trying to invent routines and schedules that can support my new, stay-at-home life, but they don’t work as well as I’d like.
If only I could create a rhythm for my day and stop checking to see whether my email has changed in the last fifteen minutes. (I’m attempting to limit media…but news from friends?)
I repeat for you and for me: “Whatever you’re feeling, or doing, it’s OK,” and “It’s OK if you don’t feel OK.”
Spending time in your castle
Roger Harrison, a seasoned organizational consultant and wise friend, used to talk about the dynamics of change, offering the image of the castle and the battlefield. Sometimes, he said, we need to push ahead, taking risks on the battlefield of change. Yet other times, when we’re wearied from too much change, we need to return to the castle, cross the moat, and pull up the drawbridge for a while.
No wonder that these days I’m drawn to the most basic of tasks. Clean the closet. Pull the weeds. I don’t need excitement. I’m content to watch the world from a small slit window in the castle wall. There, my heart feels safe to connect with the peoples of the world from Mumbai to Mexico City. Even as I support my local community, I want to keep my personal borders open. The pandemic has brought the truth of globalness to us as never before. We experience the crises differently, but we’re in it together.
Betting on the good
I notice a few good things I’m experiencing:
As an introvert who needs time alone, I’m reminded by how much I also like being with people.
I’ve stopped taking for granted the idea of a simple cup of coffee with a friend.
I’m meditating more and spending more time in nature.
I’m more conscious of how I use toilet paper.
I’m learning to draw.
Seeing with new eyes
My beginning attempts at drawing may be “no big deal,” but for me, they’re life-changing. For 55 years, I’ve clung to the story that I can’t draw and therefore can’t “do” art. In third grade, my friends Toni Squitieri and Susan Hart were the real artists; they must have born drawing. It’s taken me years to finally test the idea that anyone can learn to draw. (If I can, anybody can!).
Staying at home, I’m discovering a world of online resources and am learning that it’s ok to copy, use measurement and rulers, and erase a lot. I’m amazed at how shading can transform a sketch. Who knew?
It’d be presumptuous to call these first sketches “art” but they are my expressions, my small steps on a path towards adding a bit more art and beauty into my life.
I’ve been surprised to discover how fun it is and how it’s opening my eyes to new ways to see the world. I contemplate shadows; I try to observe shapes; I wonder how I would ever sketch my dogs.
“I have lived through two world wars, survived, miraculously the horrors of this cruel century, and yet…my eye has been in love with the splendors of the world that surround us. My response to what I see has been to draw, and the more I have drawn the greater has become my delight in seeing and my wonder at the great gift of being able to see…”
Art in the ordinary
Even as we’re confined to our houses, we can add creativity and artfulness to ordinary life.
For you, that might take the form of cooking as you add a pinch of sweet cumin to a stew; cleaning the office, as you expose the wood on the surface of a desk; writing, as you think of how to send a note to a friend; playing, as you invent a game with your kids; or placing a single flower in a vase.
One drop of beauty, like my crude drawings, can transform how we see the world. And the world needs our beauty and artfulness, now more than ever.
In times that feel wobbly and uncertain, an ounce of beauty, a dash of creativity, or a dose of care add to the light we need to guide us into an unknown future.
One baby sketch at a time.
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