Saturday, 8 April 2017

The Peace Offering



Last night, I was sitting at home on my own, right where I am now as I tell you this story: In the front window of my house, at the breakfast room table. Around 9pm, Delia starts barking, and I hear someone coming up the front steps.

I wasn't expecting anyone.

It was raining and dark outside. The shades were still up after letting the day's light in, and I would have been visible from the street, illuminated, as I was working away on my laptop. The porch light was on. Someone was home.

Up the stairs comes a man I don't know. This immediately rings alarm bells. He sees me through the window and waves. I look at him, confused, and walk over to the front door. We have a speakeasy peephole, so I'm able to see him and also talk to him.

"Hi there. Can I help you?" I ask.

"Yes, ma'am," he mumbles. "Sorry to bother you, but could I have a glass of water?"

In a downpour. He's asking for something so basic. All that water, and he's thirsty.

"I could give you a bottle of water," I say. How could I deny someone water?

"Thank you," he says. I close the peephole and turn to the kitchen.

I'd seen a stray bottle of water, unopened, but couldn't spot it right away. I quickly weigh my options. I don't want to hover over him as he drinks, nor do I know what else to give him. He can see me standing there.

Finally, I spot the bottle of water, hiding behind a dish towel. I go back to the front door, and realize there's no way I can hand this out to him while keeping the safety chain engaged.

Here's the thing about humans. They can smell fear. I doubt most could describe the scent, but we're social animals, wired to detect all kinds of subtle hints about another person's inner workings.

We're also reciprocal, though that's not always as rosy as it sounds. In an interaction, a person will populate the role offered to them by another's behavior. Treat someone fairly, and they often respond in kind. Treat someone like a criminal, and they are likelier to fulfill that suspicion.

The best way to keep someone from smelling your fear is not to feel any. I looked at the door, thought about my odds of getting it closed again quickly if I saw any sudden moves. I took a deep breath, unhooked the chain, and opened the door.

I should say here, in the most literal way possible: Do not try this at home. I would tell any child not to open a door for a stranger, no matter how nicely they asked. I decided not to adhere to that advice.

I handed him the bottle of water. He said thank you, cracked it open and had a big swig. Then, he started to tell me about how he had wandered up the busy road, going for ages without finding a gas station or anything. That he wasn't from around here, didn't know where he was going, and couldn't find a bus stop. I told him that if he headed the opposite way, he'd soon encounter civilization once more, with bus stops aplenty to get him around town.

He wasn't sober, but he more seemed tired. He offered me a hand, and I shook it. So dry.

I wished him luck on his way. He thanked me again and walked off. I sat back down to my computer.

Within five minutes, he was back. He knocked on the window. He held out a flower. Delia was not amused. I felt my blood pressure go up.

I gestured through the window: Thank you, that's too kind, you didn't have to. He insisted. I smiled awkwardly, held out a hand to say, "No, no, really."

He held it up again and said, "A peace offering." He arranged it on the windowsill, with a little difficulty. I waved and said thank you. He left again.

At this point, sitting in full view of the street near the window felt a bit too vulnerable for my liking. I moved out of view, phone in hand, and called a friend in the neighborhood. As soon as I explained to her the first part--his request for help--she responded, "That's annoying," because she could immediately see the dilemma: help another person, or risk escalating a situation with a potentially dangerous stranger by refusing.

I think most--if not all--women reading this can understand the fears and complexities driving this story. You simply do not open a door for a strange man who appears unexpectedly on your doorstep. It is extremely dangerous. And you do not let someone know you are home alone.

A series of skills may be employed at this juncture. This may be a DEFCON 1 situation, or attempts may be made to defuse the encounter or evade it entirely. In general, I try to approach moments like these with calm, directness and a very level sense of zero bullshit tolerance. It mostly works, but it doesn't always.

At this point in the story, I didn't know if my visitor would be back. I didn't really know if he had left. I didn't know where he was going, as it sounded like he didn't know himself. I knew he wasn't from around here, and I also knew he had probably clocked that I was on my lonesome, with the exception of my muppety dog.

I asked my friend to come over, and she did. When she arrived, I went out to retrieve the flower.

I'm going to add another wrinkle: The man who showed up on my doorstep was black. I was vulnerable because I was a woman home alone; he was vulnerable for a whole host of other reasons knit up in the mess of structural racism in this country.

The lights were on, and I was home. He could see me. If he needed help, it was much safer to come directly to a house that had someone in it, rather than walk door to door hoping someone would trust him enough to answer before an onlooker decided he was casing houses on our street.

I know my neighborhood pretty well; on my street, we have a mix of mostly older couples and medical students, and everyone seems to be Asian, white, Mediterranean or Latino. A lone black man stands out a mile on a road like this.

I thought of Renisha McBride. I thought of all of the encounters wherein black men have the police called on them simply for walking through predominantly white neighborhoods--sometimes the ones in which they live. I thought of every bad thing that could happen to someone who needed help as they traversed unfamiliar streets in the rain under a cloud of curtain-twitching suspicion. I was not the only one at risk.

It is always scary when a strange man shows up in the darkness of night, unannounced and unexpected, when a woman is home alone--no matter what color he may be. It was an odd encounter, and it rattled me. His request for help could have been a contrivance to persuade me to open the door for other reasons. I had to hope for the best.

Before I went to bed, I put the flower in water. I decided to trust that it was a peace offering, and that sometimes it's scary and awkward to ask for help.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Lamenting Aleppo

Today has a heaviness that won't lift. I can't stop thinking about the cataclysm occurring in Aleppo. Families obliterated, hospitals destroyed, people trapped in hell for years with no signs of hope.

I despair at the rise of our know-nothing isolationist set, that alternately blanks the names of these places we've helped condemn or ignorantly vows to fix it all by bombing rebel factions relentlessly. Two sides of the same bad coin.

I cringe at our bad track record of intervention, and also bemoan the lack of action that leaves people to be mown down in relentless violence. I watch the very cradle of civilization turn to bloody rubble.

I am enraged at those who turn their back on refugees, those that insist on disparaging survivors of so much trauma trying desperately to get somewhere safe with their children. There is a special kind of hell waiting for purveyors of such craven selfishness, especially when so many of us exist only because of the amnesty offered to our ancestors. That shame should burn.

I think of the aid workers, who struggle to count the bodies as they make some attempt to clear them from the streets under fire. I think of the doctors who guided surgeries from afar as local medical staff became casualties of war, their facilities decimated. No life support left.

My hands are far from the scene, unable to clear the airways of the wounded or lift debris from those trapped in the wreckage. Nevertheless, I carry those stones in my heart, that tear gas burns my eyes, and I am bleeding out.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Electoral Anxiety

Count me amongst those stressed by the election. As every accusation of sexual assault or fraud, every instance of incitement of violence or call for a war crime, every bit of evidence of dirty dealing and racism fails to sink Donald Trump, I despair.

In the last week or so, I've found myself asking when we'd leave. If he were to be elected, how bad would things have to get before I said goodbye to our home I've invested my heart and our money into?

When I posed the question to James, he said of course we'd stay, because people would have to stick around to stand up for people being persecuted. And I look at him and think--in Trump's America, my love, you have a funny accent. How long would being white with money really spare you from the attacks on immigrants? How long would being the "right" kind of foreigner really last?

I think about our friends in the UK that have already had to register as foreign workers, whose residence status is in question after years of building a life and paying taxes in a place they've made home. I wonder if there's really anywhere for us to go.

And I worry about me, too. I'm on the record as an outspoken feminist, and the toss of the biological dice has left me fighting for bodily autonomy. To be in charge of one of the most sacred powers humans have, and yet potentially enslaved by religious zealotry is a chilling prospect.

I think it's more powerful to focus on the positives, to relish the opportunity to vote for someone who has publicly embraced the power of her intelligence and dedicated herself to decades of public service already. But, when the numbers tilt, I can't help but think of the worst, and of how many people I know who don't take the situation seriously enough to take decisive action to stop this rightwing authoritarian threat.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Ballots and Beer

Here's the thing about Trump: I find him repugnant, but I also don't think he can get the job done. And those are really two very separate things. 

I'm not one of those "I'd like to have a beer with them" kind of voters; if someone is both a competent legislator and endearing, that's a darling combo, but I'm also open to the idea that I could find someone personally repellant and they could still be good in office. In general, our government works on coalitions, consensus and compromise, so it's beneficial to have a personality amenable to that, but that's not necessarily the same thing as me being enamoured with their public persona.

The reverse is also true. Someone can seem really nice and not get my vote because I don't get the whiff of potential accomplishment off of them. And by "whiff," I mean some combination of actual record of service combined with the kind of intelligence it takes to get things done. I want my legislators to have a talent for building cooperation, and, when that fails, a keen eye for Constitutional law and surgical precision for doing the greatest good possible within our often-cumbersome system of checks and balances. That's why Hillary and Barack got my vote, and not Bernie. Likeability and big ideas aren't enough in my books, for all that they can be inspiring. I need to be convinced that someone can actually do things beyond pithy promises.

Finally, I think there's something of an arranged marriage in all of this. Generally, I find I grow more fond of someone who gains my confidence through their actions; I'm more generous about their imperfections if I get the impression that they are trying to serve well and are open to input from their constituents. I don't have to love them to get into the bargain. Over time, the bond deepens if I feel that they are hardworking, dedicated, and trying to make steady progress.

But, I don't give them the job if I don't think they can do it. And that decision bears no relation to whether I'd buy them a drink. 

Monday, 1 August 2016

Poking and Politics

I've seen a number of posts floating around, talking about not losing friends over differences in political beliefs, and I think that's a healthy attitude to have. It's certainly not necessary to agree on everything to be friends--in fact, I think we often learn our most profound lessons from engaging with each other across divides in experience and perspective, and those divides can run deep sometimes. 

Social media is a different matter, though. There's a lovely sort of magic in being able to be in contact with people who've shared passing IRL encounters with us and allow space for a genuine affinity to grow. I've had many beautiful friendships grow thanks to years of communication over this worldwide web. There are people I primarily stay in contact with online who are truly friends and enhance my experience of life every day. 

But, a Facebook friend request does not a friendship make. It takes more than that. The deeper understanding and love that smoothes over disagreements is not necessarily there just because a network shows a connection. The blessing and curse of social media linkages is that they are potentially vast and superficial. 

That said--I find myself editing out people that comport themselves in certain ways online. People that use their digital presence to spread hatred. People who fixate on poison and spew it back out. People actively seeking out rage porn, amplifying the unthinking rage that's cynically stirred up by the nastiest types of demagogues. People resolutely buying timeshares in the post-factual economy. 

I actually think you can believe almost anything politically and present it in a reasonable way. That's how dialogue happens. Most people are not, in fact, crazy--they feel things for a reason. We all get excited about ideas and moments, and I think there's tremendous power in sharing the positives about what moves us. And, I admit, my patience has grown extraordinarily thin with the alternative. 

We're not all going to be sitting around a virtual campfire singing "Kumbaya" hand-in-hand anytime soon. We all have our bubbles, echo chambers and moments of preaching to the choir. But, we can all do our little part to tamp down on the hysteria that compulsive negativity breeds. It's more powerful to run toward something than to live in fear and constantly be fleeing bogeymen.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Playthings and Platitudes

Listening to KQED's Forum this morning drove it home: I cannot listen one second longer to men arguing that gun control laws would do nothing, have no impact, where the disease of mass shootings in the US are concerned. 

No. Just no. We have a supply problem, as well as a demand problem. Guns are cheap and plentiful here, including military-style weaponry designed purely for mowing down human beings at high speed. And all for the sake of self-righteous assholes who want to cling to their toys and their paranoid delusions of Minuteman-style patriotism. 

This is masculinity in crisis, folks. It's not about anyone else's safety, and it's not about rights. If it was, I wouldn't be scrapping away over here for rights to my own uterus while women are being gunned down by angry partners in the confines of their own homes. 

We're always going to have idiots. Mental health will remain a struggle for some section of the population at any given moment, always. Waves of hysteria and hate are an unfortunate feature of humanity, but we can temper their effects. No solution is perfect, but we could at least try. 

No more moments of silence. I want moments of action. I want Congress to stop cowering in the face of the NRA, to vote on bills closing loopholes around background checks and to reinstate the assault weapons ban. Now. 

BTW, if you're an argumentative dude thinking of fighting me on this, you're picking the wrong battle. I will straight up delete you. You're not a rebel, you're an accident waiting to happen. I'm done pretending this is a debate. I've had the joy of living in a country where I had virtually no fear of being caught up in a mass shooting, and the glory is real. No mass knifings, either. It's divine. 

There's a single argument for guns, and it's not weighty enough to balance the sea of bodies stacking up on the other side. I don't give a shit about your playthings, or whether you "enjoy" guns. I enjoy life. I enjoy days unmarred by catastrophic tragedies. My right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness is more important than your desire to cling to instruments of death. 

As an addendum, I'm sharing this--again. Because the USA still hasn't moved on in this conversation, and it's still the best rebuttal to the many protestations of the gun-lust set. We might not be able to stop every single tragedy, but we could take action now to make mass shootings prohibitively expensive. We can stem the tide. Other countries have proven this is the case. 



Friday, 22 April 2016

Details and Dreams

I just woke up from a dream in which I had shown up at a dance studio that means a lot to me, bags with me having just landed from a flight. I was hanging around the studio with friends, catching up on news from our lives, and discussing some mundane details like a discount on the tuition that hadn't gone through, but that I felt I probably didn't need anyway.

It felt joyful, and exciting. I felt invigorated to come back the next day, that I had something to contribute to the morning's circle. A new adventure had begun, I was back for an intensive, and I was so glad to be with friends I only got to see in this dance microcosm. 

This time, too, there was something special: I knew I wasn't there to take the test. I was just there for the ride. I felt easy about the whole thing.

I've got to say, it felt really good to feel that again. This was a dream in the truest sense, not in the waking world, "if you can see it you can be it" kind of way, but a deeply authentic emotional hallucination that was motivating and alive. I felt like I was there, and I was having a good experience with dance. I felt like I belonged.

It felt like the grain of sand from which I could rebuild an entire world. 

Also, it reminded me that my previous intensive actually was a good experience, in which I made new friends, had a great time working with other dancers, and genuinely reminded myself that my increasingly creaky body was capable of knitting together its years of knowledge with a week of hard work to produce a final product I was proud of. I'd had fun, and I had left the studio last time feeling like something magical had happened. Regardless of what happened after, I left feeling like some part of my spiritual home could be found in dance still.

I woke up to the rain hitting hard and fast against the bedroom windows in the house I'm building, remembering that at least one was open. I leapt into action, closed up against the inundation, and laid back down to savour that dream a little longer. To contemplate what it meant. To take that very real feeling of a fresh dream and see if I could blend its contours back into the topography of everyday life. To feel whether or how I could get back on the horse.

I'm going to hold this in my heart a little longer. Another intensive has just passed at that same studio, and I hadn't thought I felt much about that as it was happening. But, this morning, creaky bones and all, I find myself writing this. Thinking of my dancing ladies today.