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Today is a day off from the A to Z Challenge. Too bad, as I’m chock full of “T” things to pile into this day: Tardy, Time, Tired, Training, Testing, Truth-telling …

Instead, today I’ll reflect on another challenge, the #52essays2017 challenge. I’m still determined to write 52 essays this year, despite being well off the essay-a-week goal. I have several sizable drafts waiting for completion, but my brain just can’t quite seem to get there. Yes, part of that is the fact that I haven’t given myself much time to sit with any of those drafts and work. Part of it is also that I wonder if their moments have passed, if they are too specific to events that are no longer current.

On my way home from a workshop today, I thought about a couple of those unfinished essays in particular. The one I started to write in response to some of the casually violent and oppressive comments I heard and read from people after the women’s march in January. The one about what I really mean when I keep telling white folks they need to come get their people. Thinking about these and the other unfinished pieces, I could feel the stubborn, obnoxious me fussing, saying I should just finish and publish them, even if their subjects feel out of date. I did throw the Dolezal piece up, after all, why not these. And I kind of, maybe, sorta agree?

I need to think about it a bit more. I had some good anger in there. I hate to see it wasted, cast off to the Island of Misfit Blogposts.

__________

Meanwhile, today’s chōka — inspired by a moment on the A train this afternoon, a moment I have had so many times in my life, but especially since I started wearing my hair natural … which was in 1989, so we’re talking a ridiculously long time and people should know better by now.

What My Hair Says

Did you see me? I
look like a goddess today
… at least, my hair does.
Today I have hair
that makes strangers’ hands reach out
as their eyes light up
and they ask, “Can I touch it?”
Today my hair says,
“Get the fuck away from me,”
as I duck my head,
bob and weave, avoid contact.
Woman on the A
looked offended when I moved,
reached her arm again
as if I’d made a mistake.
“Do not touch my hair,”
I said it calmly, clearly —
nary a stutter.
“It’s so beautiful,” she said,
her hand in mid air.
I took a step back, said … “Yes.”
Nothing more to say.
My hair is quite beautiful.
But this is the A —
subway car, not petting zoo.
Do not touch my hair.
You can ask … but you
ask while already reaching,
already so sure
you can of course have your way.
You can ask … but I
don’t have to agree. And won’t.
Today my hair says,
“Get the fuck away from me.”
Tomorrow, that’ll be me.

My first long chōka … and of course it’s angry. Of course.

_____

A chōka is a Japanese form poem with a specific syllable count per line. The shortest form of chōka  is: 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 7. The 5- and 7-syllable lines can repeat as many times as needed. The poem’s end is signaled by the extra 7-syllable line. The final five lines can be used to summarize the body of the poem.



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As in lifting something heavy. As in the weight of something heavy. And H is for Heavy. As in something of great weight, difficult to lift, move, or carry. As in of great density, thick or substantial.

And what does all of this have to do with my decision to spend this Poetry Month writing chōka? Yes, that would be the rearing of my Little Hater’s ugly head. Let me explain.

Last week, I noticed that I was feeling comfortable with my poetry challenge. Anyone who has read my April writing for more than a minute knows that I have struggled mightily with poetry, with the idea that I can write poetry, with the idea that I would have the nerve to post those poems online, with the idea that I would have the unmitigated gall to call myself a poet. Just about every April since I started my blog, I come here and try to push back against all of that and write poems. I force myself to post them, even when I know they aren’t even good enough to be called mediocre. Because I have to. Because to not do that is giving in to that mean, awful voice that has been telling me since I was 18 years old that I can’t write poems.

Learning a new form sometimes pulls me out of that negative loop very nicely. I don’t know what or why that is. Maybe it takes so much focus for me to wrap my brain around the new patter there isn’t room for my Inner Critic to slip in.

So I was feeling that, feeling pulled away from that mean voice, content to just play with the words.

I’m sure you can guess where this is headed.

Yes. As soon as I noticed that I was feeling comfortable … all that comfort drained away and the tidal wave of doubt flooded in. Of course..

My doubt wasn’t about whether or not the poems were good. Or, rather, not much about that. It is generally a given for me that the poems aren’t particularly good. I am always surprised when I like a poem I’ve written. That is hardly the anticipated result. So I chided myself for not writing good poems — that one from Thursday night is still pretty unforgivable — but then I realized that quality wasn’t what had me thinking negative thoughts about my poems.

No, my Inner Mean Person was kicking my teeth in because my poems were boring. Plain and simple. My poems weren’t about anything substantive. When I did my last year of aruns in 2014, I was just getting into genealogical research, and my poems were about Samuel and finding family and history. When I did prose poems in 2015, my poems were little Black Lives Matter protest songs. In 2009 when I started this April business, I wrote about love, about Sean Bell, about Black death. From the beginning I’ve landed on serious subjects. My poems may not have been good, but they had weight. Heft.

Thursday I wrote a poem about having “Boogie, Oogie, Oogie” as an earworm. Such a piece of fluff as could be carried away by the softest exhalation.

Of course, there are plenty of heavy, serious, somber things to write about. Every. single. day. But I haven’t found my way into those stories, found the way to tell my piece of any of those stories. And so I — and you, dear reader — am stuck here, in this fluffy place. And maybe that’s as it should be. Maybe I need to be here, churning out banal chōka to give my brain a rest, a chance to sort through and process all the everything else. Maybe when that’s done, I’ll find my way back to writing poems with heft.

Spring

Smooth, shining spring day
here at last, reminding me
of April in France
Paris opening her arms
no longer stiff, cold
finally welcoming me.
Claude driving us fast
along the Champs Elysees
the air honeyed, light.
Spring reminds me of Ludlow
those days with Walter —
was it pollen in my eyes
blinding me to him?
A later spring, me and Ray
the back of his bike
cruising up the Palisades.

It is again spring
and this old woman’s fancy
turns to thoughts of love
(loves) in the dim long ago —
wringing verses from their bones.

_____

A chōka is a Japanese form poem with a specific syllable count per line. The shortest form of chōka  is: 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 7. The 5- and 7-syllable lines can repeat as many times as needed. The poem’s end is signaled by the extra 7-syllable line. The final five lines can be used to summarize the body of the poem.

(Is this an essay? I’m going to call it one. It needs more work, but it’s enough of a start to give my revision some direction, an idea of where I wanted to go.)



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Shortly after the election, my coworkers and I had a meeting to talk about the election results and how we imagined THOTUS¹ and his masters and minions administration would impact our work. One of my colleagues talked about the need for us to write down our values, to make a written list of what we hold most dear as citizens … and then to rank that list. At the bottom of the list would be the things that were the “nice to haves,” things that were important to us, but which we could imagine allowing to fall by the wayside in dire times. The middle of the list were the “necessary” things, the values we felt strongly about and would be willing to stand up for. The top of the list, of course, would be for the “MUST haves,” the things on which we would never negotiate, the things for which we would fight. He said we’d need that list, that THOTUS would begin cutting away at everything on the list, and we needed to know where we stood, how far we were willing to go, what we were ready to battle for.

I didn’t make my list then. I thought about it a lot, but didn’t write. I sat down to write it out today, using some of my unexpected snow/ice-day time to focus on it. Because, on practically every one of the last 50 days, I have seen the flame-throwers of THOTUS’ scorched earth policy coming for every single thing I hold dear, everything that means anything about being a citizen of this country.

Earlier today, my mom sent me an article about Customs and Border Patrol agents demanding passwords so they can search travelers’ electronic devices. I told her to be prepared to have me call her from jail after I refuse to give up my passwords.

Let me be clear: There is not one thing on my phone that’s so special and important that only I should be able to see it. I could easily hand over my phone if asked, easily give up my password because I — like every single person who is being searched these days — have nothing at all to hide.  But none of that is anywhere near the point.

As I said to her, this is only the first pass. The first swing of the sledgehammer against the wall of what we think is our personal sovereignty. Once we’ve all gotten past this, gotten used to — if not entirely comfortable with — giving up our passwords on the regular, there will come the next thing. And that next thing will be worse. And suddenly giving up our passwords won’t seem like all that much because now we have to travel with letters from our employers vouching for our legitimacy or some such. And we’ll fight against the insanity of that, but then we’ll get used to it and it will stop seeming so bad because suddenly we’re being strip-searched.

It isn’t surprising that the people facing the worst harassment are people who are visibly Muslim or who have Muslim names. It isn’t surprising, but it’s no less awful. And it didn’t start with Muslims. And it certainly isn’t going to stop with Muslims. You know that, right?

So I took a break today, put other things (like remembering that I had a slice to post) on pause so I could think long and hard about the line I will draw in the sand, think about what I hold most dear, about where I’m not willing to give an inch, about what I’m prepared to stand up for, to fight for. I should have done this in November, when my coworker first said it. I didn’t write my list then because I thought it wasn’t necessary for me, figured I was clear, that I already knew all the items at the top of the list, that there weren’t any questions.

There are questions.

And am I really only talking about one line in the sand? Is it ever just one? When I start to think through all of the possible pieces, all the things that may or may not be hard and fast, I come up with something that’s feels more like this:

I’m still working on my list.

What lines will you draw in the sand? What does it mean if you stand up? What does it mean if you don’t?



In 2017, I’m on my #GriotGrind, committed to writing an essay a week.
I’m following the lead of Vanessa Mártir, who launched #52essays2017 after she wrote an essay a week for 2016 … and then invited other writers along for the ride!


It’s the 10th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see all of today’s slices!

__________
¹ Titular Head oThese United States — Because yes, I’m one of those people. I won’t say that man’s name if I can help it, and certainly won’t ever put the office title that I respect in front of it. Punto.

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I had an important deadline Saturday, had to submit something or I’d miss my chance. I found out about this deadline in January. Jan.u.ar.y. I’ve had many weeks to make this happen. Here’s how I worked on it:

  1. Stared at the information.
  2. Thought about how much I wanted that thing.
  3. Stared at the information.
  4. Wondered why anyone would ever consider me for that thing.
  5. Clicked away from the page, telling myself I couldn’t work on it then because I had so much going on and I had to do some homework before I’d be ready to work on that.
  6. Ignore it for a few days.
  7. Repeat from step one.

Over. And over. And over again.

I finally started working on this on Sunday. Yes, when I had hardly any time left to get my work in order. Of course.

Every night last week, I sat down to work, and every night I pushed away from my computer, telling myself I would never finish and shouldn’t be trying anyway because I’m all wrong for this opportunity.

Needless to say, this is horrifically frustrating.

So what’s my story? Clearly, as is true for so many people, particularly women, particularly women of color, I keep running smack into the solid granite wall of Impostor Syndrome.

There are plenty of reasons to love the amazingly talented Viola Davis. Having her call out Impostor Syndrome just moments after being handed her Academy Award was kind of amazing.

I read  about this thing years ago, maybe as long ago as 2011. I recognized myself then, recognized the ways I tear myself down, doubt myself, struggle against the fear that I’ll be unmasked at any moment. On one level, I was relieved to discover that I wasn’t alone, that there was actually a name for the way I thought about myself. At the same time, it was disturbing to discover the realness of what I was doing. I recognized it, but I didn’t try to do anything about it. I didn’t know what to do about it. Yes, there were things I’d learned about stopping a thought, replacing it with a better, kinder, more based-in-reality thought. I’d seen that work when I tried it with bad body thoughts (it’s a body/fat acceptance thing … fodder for another post). But I don’t seem able to catch myself when I sank into Impostor fears, at least not immediately, not quickly enough to stop myself from sinking. I figure out what I’m doing only after I’ve fully shot myself down.

I may have only learned about Impostor Syndrome a few years ago, but I’ve been letting it hold me back for so much longer. All those times I didn’t stand up for myself, just accepted whatever awful treatment was doled out to me …Yeah, that was me believing I deserved to be treated like crap, that whoever was cutting me down was simply seeing me for who and what I really was and letting me know. When a supervisor lost confidence in me and stopped backing my play, I never questioned it. It made perfect sense to me. Clearly she had finally realized I was a fraud.

I had been planning to write that I’ve been losing the fight against Impostor Syndrome for my whole life. But I’ve been trying to track back to when I first felt unworthy, and it’s definitely not my whole life. But it is easily the last 15 years, and that’s a painfully long time.

I shrugged it off a moment ago, but stopping the thought really does have to be step one here. I can’t fight the cycle if I don’t see it coming and cut it off at the knees. I need to see those moments as they happen and shut them right down.

And, in some ways, this is a perfect time to be pushing myself in this way. I’m about to be putting myself out in the spotlight in a couple of ways that will surely trigger Impostor Syndrome again and again. Ramping up my vigilance now, at the start of this “spotlight season,” will be good for me … and it will be challenging, and exhausting, and demoralizing … and so helpful in the long run.

Yes, I can already see that this has to be part of my Be Your Own Cabana Boy self-care plan. Maybe one of the most important parts. Seeing myself clearly, not putting myself down, not standing in my own way … these things are as important as feeding myself well, as getting enough sleep. It all comes back to that comment I threw in so casually at the end of yesterday’s post: I’m worth it. Those L’Oreal ads were clearly onto something. I’m worth this hard work, so it’s time to put in the time.

Is Impostor Syndrome something you’ve dealt with? If so, what have you done to push back against it? If you’ve never faced this, I’m super happy for you, and I’m also super curious about you! How do you think you’ve avoided it?



In 2017, I’m on my #GriotGrind, committed to writing an essay a week.
I’m following the lead of Vanessa Mártir, who launched #52essays2017 after she wrote an essay a week for 2016 … and then invited other writers along for the ride!


It’s the 10th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!

Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see all of today’s slices!

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I had plans for this weekend, things I was so sure I was going to get done. Such good plans. And here it is, my long weekend on the wane, and I’ve done next to nothing. It’s shameful, actually, such complete shirking of my duties.

But at the same time, how can I be expected to get anything done from my mundane to-do list when I am so busy keeping a laser focus on Sweden. Sweden! Who would believe this? Sweden! I mean, when you think about what happened the other night, about how they’re having problems like they never thought possible … how can you really, truly focus on anything the fuck-all else?

So I’ve given myself a pass, forgiven myself for my inability to pull my thoughts away from Sweden.

When people listen to THOTUS¹, how do they decide to believe him? How do they turn on the news and hear him talking about “what happened last night in Sweden,” and know they haven’t heard anything about Sweden. And they go online and there’s nothing about Sweden except the thousand articles trying to suss out what the hell THOTUS was talking about. How do folks do all of that and still decide to believe him, still decide to listen attentively when he speaks? How do folks do all of that and not come out the other end convinced that he is a pathological liar, that he makes up stories just because, makes up stories when he doesn’t need a story. He could talk only about Paris and have enough material to sway you. He could talk about Brussels and have enough. He’d have more than enough if he talked about Turkey, but he wouldn’t do that because … well … Turkey.

My point is that he doesn’t need the story. There are enough real stories already. He doesn’t need to throw another country into the mix. And yet he went in with Sweden. And not as a casual throwaway, tacking it onto the end of a list. No, he goes on a bit: “Sweden. Who would believe this? Sweden! They took in large numbers, they’re having problems like they never thought possible.”

Really, just why in the all-encompassing fuck does he need to do this?

I taught basic composition classes at a community college for years. The course was prep for a very rigid test for which students would be expected to write a specific kind of essay. It was a test they had already failed at least once by the time they landed in my class. The essay prompts offered up two topics, students picked a side … and then had to have something to say about the random issue they chose.

Students would often ask me if they could just invent some “evidence,” tell a story that illustrated the point they wanted to make even if the story was constructed out of whole cloth on the spot. And I can see why making up a story feels like a good answer. You can craft the story to fit your point perfectly, and what better “proof” is there than the this-really-happened argument?

But I always warned students again storytelling. I would tell them that, if they really wanted to make up a story, they should first assess themselves: how well could they lie? Because good storytelling is about lying, as Mother Zora taught is in her folktale research. So I’d ask my students how often they told lies. Did people always believe their lies? Were they good at not caving in or getting confused and giving pieces of the story away? Were they able to lie and stay calm and focused or did the lying make them flushed and nervous or excited — not good for concentrating on getting an essay written.

I asked them a bunch of questions … and then told them that unless they were consummate liars, making up a story was a bad idea. I had a few receipts, stories of students I’d taught who had chosen not to listen to my warning, who decided that telling a story was the right option for them. And how dramatically they crashed and burned on their way to a lousy score on the exam.

Clearly, no one has told THOTUS that telling stories isn’t going to help him pass this exam. What’s more, it’s just too easy to turn the stories on their heads and fill the empty spaces with the truth. He tells lies — and his people tell lies — that would work if we didn’t live in 2017 in a country with stable internet access and a solid corps of investigative journalists. It’s so outrageous to me, it’s actually hard to fathom what he could be thinking.

Maybe THOTUS is all muddled by what happened the other night in Sweden. Perhaps he needs a nice sauna followed by a romp in the snow. Or perhaps he just needs to admit that this job isn’t the right fit for him, that he was wrong to believe all of Vladimir’s pep talks about how he could so be president.

I understand THOTUS’ issue, though. I told my students not to make up stories unless they were spectacularly good liars. And for the most part, they were able to see themselves clearly enough to know that they weren’t good enough liars. They could think back to times when their lying was detected and the results were distressing at best. But THOTUS doesn’t have this history to evaluate. He surrounds himself with genuflecting toadies. He distorts all facts until they say what he wants to hear. When he looks back at his past, he doesn’t see times when lying tripped him up. He’s already revised those stories into examples of “so much winning!” The end result? He may actually believe he’s a good liar. So he keeps diving in and telling his team to dive in alongside him.

It’s up to us — the people for whom he works — to call out his lies and call him out as a liar. This is all part of not normalizing what we’re seeing, not letting anyone convince us that any of this is okay.

As for me, I’m annoyed to know that I spent my whole weekend worried about the state of affairs in Sweden, where Sweden is doing quite well and not in need of my worry.

My students who lied on their essays failed the writing exam. It was sad for them, but not catastrophic. THOTUS failing in his job could be cataclysmic. Do I wish he didn’t have that Pennsylvania Avenue job? Sure, but he does, and I’d like him to not get us all killed before we have the chance to vote him back to civilian life. Getting him to stop lying every time he opens his mouth might be a step in the right direction.

__________

¹ Titular Head oThese United States



griotgrind_logo

In 2017, I’m on my #GriotGrind, committed to writing an essay a week.
It’s not too late to join! Check out Vanessa Mártir’s blog to find out how!

Also? It’s Slice of Life Tuesday!
Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see what the other slicers are up to!

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I stopped watching Scandal early-ish in Season 5. I was so tired, and it was so convoluted and conniving, and I just didn’t have the energy.

Then last week I went back. The new season is on and I wanted to be able to peek in and understand where everyone was and how they got there. So I went to Netflix and slid into Season 5. From the top.

And you know? Never mind that it’s still convoluted and conniving and crazy and cringe-worthy and all the other alliterative descriptors I might think to use. Never mind that I can’t stand Fitz and have never found that man – the character or the actor, but so particularly the character – attractive. Never mind that even Olivia turns me off and annoys the crap out of me most of the time. Never mind all of that. I need to be watching Scandal, desperately need what this show is giving me.

How have I never noticed the music? How have I managed to watch four seasons and never notice the music? Where have my ears been? This show – which should come as no surprise – is so Black. But sooo Black. Powerfully, unashamedly, doggedly, determinedly. If it had a theme song, it would have to be the fabulously nonsensical yet bizarrely affirming “I’m Black,Y’all.”

And it’s not because Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope is the primary character, although yes, she’s part of it. And Joe Morton as Papa Pope is part of it – he is, after all, everyone’s favorite Brother from Another Planet. But the Popes are barely in the real world, certainly not anywhere near what my real world looks and feels and smells like. They are definitely Black, but they don’t make the show Black. No. For me, all that unapologetic Blackness is in the music. The soundtrack to Season 5 is a glorious celebration of Black music as Black voice, Black mood, Black conscience … and I am so here for it.

Maybe I never noticed this before because I didn’t need it as much in the past as I do in this moment. Maybe I stopped watching in part because I was getting further and further away from Pope-world and the cognitive dissonance was too much for me. And, while I’m still plenty far from Pope-world today, I need to dive in anyway, need to gather as much Blackness around me as possible. So I was drawn back to the show … and found my heart and soul waiting for me there, the running conversation under the scenes.

Just so you know:

  • You Got the Love — Rufus (yes, featuring Chaka Khan)
  • Got to Be Real — Cheryl Lynn
  • Do Right Woman, Do Right Man — Aretha Franklin
  • How Do You Keep the Music Playing — James Ingram and Patti Austin
  • You’re All I Need to Get By — Aretha Franklin
  • Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours) — Stevie Wonder

That’s just in the tiniest toe of a dip into the first four episodes, people! So 👏 damn 👏 black 👏.

On Sunday I went to a meeting of an anti-racist group. It was a meeting only for the POC members of the group. They meet monthly, and I’ve been wanting to go for a while, but Sunday was the first time my schedule allowed it.

And then I woke up Sunday, and the weather was awful: iced-over snowy rain and so cold! I didn’t want to leave my cozy apartment, and certainly not to head downtown to a meeting place right by the river!

But the chance to sit in community with a group of POC working for social justice and equity was too great a lure. I got my act together and got myself to DUMBO.

Thank goodness, too. Those two hours were fresh air. I could be as serious, silly, snarky, angry, frustrated, amused, or sad as I wanted, and no one expected me to explain, defend, modulate, or disappear my feelings. I could just have them.

And so I gathered a little more Blackness to me, wrapped myself in it as I would a fleece and mink blanket. Blackness — POC-ness — is the balm for my head and heart these days. I’m not closing doors on white folks. Can’t afford anything like that. There’s too much work to be done.

There is so much work. And I won’t get any of it done if I don’t look out for myself, find ways to take care of myself. I need to remember my sanctuary spaces, need to find myself some peace, need to put some shine on all the Blackness, all the big, bold, bodacious, brazen, blackety, black Blackness. Those alliterative descriptors are set to become my new mantra.

Time to slip back in. Nina Simone, Gil Scott Heron, and more Aretha on deck. Shonda clearly has my back in this fight.

“I’m black y’all, and I’m black y’all
and I’m blackety black, and I’m black y’all …”


griotgrind_logo

In 2017, I’ve committed to writing an essay a week.

It’s not too late to join if you’re feeling ambitious! Check out Vanessa Mártir’s blog to find out how!

original-slicer-girlgriot

It’s Slice-of-Life Tuesday! Click on the badge to visit Two Writing Teachers and see what the other slicers are writing today!

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I saw a woman harassed and frightened by a man. I was too far away to do anything about it. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing until it was almost over. It was a crowded A train during morning rush hour. I had only just managed to squeeze myself onto the car. I wasn’t looking at people around me, was mostly thinking ahead to the meeting I was headed for. As we pulled into Hoyt-Schermerhorn, I focused. I’d been kind of staring off ahead, not really looking at anything.

At that moment I focused and saw a man, maybe close to my height (5’10”), stocky, doing some kind of bob-and-weave movement. He was about a third of the length of the train car away from where I was sandwiched in, but I could clearly see his weird bob and weave. I looked closer. He was bobbing and weaving into and away from the face of a woman. She was small, maybe five-foot-two or three. She was slight, not waif-slight, but very slender.

I stared at them for a few seconds, trying to tell if they were together. Had I seen the man’s face, I would have known they were definitely not together because when he turned around as the train pulled out of the station, the man’s face gave him away — he looked unstable, looked unkempt … not like a homeless person but like a madman who didn’t waste time pulling his look together.

But I hadn’t seen his face yet. I just saw him diving in and out of the woman’s face. I watched him for several seconds that felt a lot longer. By the time I registered that something was deeply wrong with what was happening, the woman had removed herself from the space, had ducked under the arm of the person on her other side and moved down the car. She was so small, I lost sight of her immediately in the crowded space. That was when her harasser turned around, when I saw that, whatever he’d been doing, it couldn’t have been pleasant for that woman. I would never want that man’s face anywhere near mine.

He turned and started talking to the people around him. Not like excusing his actions, but like bragging. He looked quite proud and pleased with himself, as if scaring that woman was a kind of triumph for him, and I guess it was. I couldn’t hear anything he said. It was loud on the train, and he was quiet, talking for the people directly near him, not for all of us. The train pulled into Jay Street, he took a seat and that was that.

But that wasn’t that. Couldn’t possibly ever really be that.

I was so angry. Angry at him, sure. Of course. More, I was angry at all of the people in that section of the train. I’ll grant that the man’s appearance was unsettling. I wouldn’t have considered it a small thing to confront him. But he was menacing someone. He was all up in that woman’s face, up in the face of a person who was small both in height and size. He was taking pleasure in frightening her — because that was the first thing I saw when he turned around, his big, I’m-the-man smile. He was having a great time ruining that woman’s commute, and maybe her whole day, maybe her week — who knows what that incident may have triggered for her? He was having a great time … and not one person thought of a way to do anything to stop him, to shield her, to defuse the situation.

Everyone stayed in their books and newspapers, stayed on their phones. Everyone chose to ignore what was happening right beside them. When the woman saw her chance to squeeze through the crowd to get free, she moved past the man standing beside her. He was tall and had one arm stretched out to hold the overhead rail. She ducked under his arm, and he bowed his body to make a little more room for her to pass … and then he held that position a moment longer, as if giving the harasser a chance to pass, too. He was prepared to facilitate the woman’s continued abuse by making way for her abuser. WTF? True, he hadn’t tried to help the woman at all, but simply straightening his body, putting a barrier between the woman and the man, would have at least been a protective gesture. Nope. No protection there.

I don’t know what I want from people, what I expect. I’ve had my own experiences with people on the street or the train not coming to my aid. I know it’s easier and certainly feels safer to stay out of a charged and troubling situation. But seeing this moment on the train really upset me. How can you stand next to someone who is being terrorized and do nothing? I was too far away and too tightly packed against other riders to do more than witness. I have no idea what I would have done if I’d been standing closer, but I would have done something. Some thing.

That’s easy to say, of course. But I have receipts. I’ve intervened between abusive men and their partners in the past. I’ve called out harassers on the train, even used some low-grade violence once, though I don’t recommend that. Confrontation isn’t a thing I make a habit of, but it has happened. There seemed to be something wrong with that man, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have been stopped, couldn’t have been made to back off.

Full disclosure: a big part of my surprise is because the woman was white, and the man harassing her was Black. Our raison d’etre as a country is to stand up for the safety and honot of white women … especially in the face of a threat from a Black man. And yet no one stepped up for this woman.

But just on the level of basic human decency, I don’t understand what I saw on that train. Do not understand.

This morning I was at a conference and heard NYC Public Advocate Letitia James reframe Michelle Obama’s line, saying: “When they go low, we need to get loud.” She was talking about the opposition (the Resistance) being big enough, forceful enough to “drown out the noise” of harmful policies and ill-conceived decisions (hey, I’m trying to be generous).

I get what she’s saying. It makes perfect sense. But how does that happen, exactly? Where is this solidarity and readiness for the fight supposed to come from when we don’t care enough about one another as individuals to step up when the person next to us is in danger?

People knitted pink hats and came out in the hundreds of thousands for the Women’s March. They felt like, and were, a giant mass of “No!” directed at THOTUS¹. And yet, for all that sisterhood and comradery, there was also silencing, erasure, and exclusion.

Am I wrong to see a connection here? Empathy is going to be central to the success of whatever fightback is strong enough to carry us forward. If we can’t care enough for the woman standing beside us, how are we supposed to be standard-bearers for refugees we’ll never see, Palestinians losing their land in a place we’ll never visit, women denied reproductive care in nations we erase when we think of their continent as a country, Black bodies left in the street for hours?

But then I think about the people who came out for Muslims travelers over the weekend. They put out calls for lawyers, brought supplies, came out and stayed out. They stepped up. They gave me some hope.

I still don’t understand what I saw on the train. It’s just not okay to ignore someone in distress. Not okay.

And I can’t help but believe it’s these small acts of brave kindness and compassion that will help us feel strong enough, able enough to step up in bigger ways. Because we’re going to need to do that. We’re going to have to take risks, put ourselves in harm’s way. We’re going to have to stop pretending not to see what’s right in front of us.

We have to do that for strangers on the train, and we have to do it for this nation of strangers that has never needed us more than it does now.

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In 2017, I’ve committed to writing an essay a week.

It’s not too late to join if you’re feeling ambitious! Check out Vanessa Mártir’s blog to find out how!

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¹ Titular Head oThese United States


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