What if? The Power of Open and Honest Questions (Dec 1, 2019)

These are the readings and some of the songs included in a service I offered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Springfield, Vermont, on December 1, 2019. 

Opening Song: #188, Come, Come Whoever you Are

Reading:
A Gift
Denise Levertov

Just when you seem to yourself
nothing but a flimsy web
of questions, you are given
the questions of others to hold
in the emptiness of your hands,
songbird eggs that can still hatch
if you keep them warm,
butterflies opening and closing themselves
in your cupped palms, trusting you not to injure
their scintillant fur, their dust.
You are given the questions of others
as if they were answers
to all you ask. Yes, perhaps
this gift is your answer.

Reflection: What if? The Power of Open and Honest Questions

Last January, during a time I felt I was, as Levertov puts it in her poem, nothing but a flimsy web of questions, I went on a retreat in northern Vermont. Held at Rock Point Center on the shores of lake Champlain, twenty of us gathered for a few days of winter reflection facilitated by WholeHeart, a Vermont-based reflection and action group.

All of us knew that part of the process of the retreat would include a portion when we would hold space for the questions we were living with. That was part of the purpose—the retreat was called Winter Wellness, and its calling to participants was to step out of the hustle of daily life and reflect on what, really, nurtures us and brings us toward wholeness. And because we had filled out a form before the retreat, we also knew that a few folks would have volunteered to offer their story, their questions, in a more formal small-group setting. We knew that we would split off to listen to another participant’s deep question, and to practice asking them open and honest questions.

The arc of the retreat moved us towards the capacity to open such questions. It’s harder than you might think! Or maybe you know exactly how hard it is, to ask a really open and honest question. That’s one thing I’ve been reflecting on, these last few weeks—how hard it was for me, and I suspect for many of us, to listen deeply enough to each other that we can reach for the question that someone is asking without knowing they are asking it.

That’s what I want to think about with you today—the process of discernment that we are called to when we are called to witness each others’ challenges. This process of discernment is about cultivating the ability to listen to ourselves, so that we can truly listen to another and hold a space for them.

Quaker elder, educator, and activist Parker Palmer suggests that when we are called together with a friend or colleague or other close one, the call is more often than not, to sit, and listen deeper. To sit in witness of the unknown heart that is in front of us, rather than in advising and fixing. To descend past the impossible layers of our own experience and memory in order to craft a question in conversation with that unknown heart, and offer it to the person in front of us. He says that when we make our way towards the really open and honest questions, we are making room for the person in front of us to tune in to their own knowledge. Here he is, in his own words:

Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.

Aye, there’s the rub. Many of us “helper” types are as much or more concerned with being seen as good helpers as we are with serving the soul-deep needs of the person who needs help. Witnessing and companioning take time and patience, which we often lack — especially when we’re in the presence of suffering so painful we can barely stand to be there, as if we were in danger of catching a contagious disease. We want to apply our “fix,” then cut and run.

Parker Palmer, from the On Being blog

I bring Parker Palmer into our conversation today because his methods to support humans sitting in deep witness of each other, through his Courage and Renewal facilitation trainings, was the basis of the retreat I went on last year. Let’s go back there for a minute.

On the first day of the retreat, we learned each others’ names and a number of other things, including the amount of silent paying-attention we would be doing, with ourselves and each other over the course of our time together. We also learned who would comprise the small groups for the final evening, and who would be the person bringing their question to each small group. I remember thinking, prior to the retreat, how surprised I was that I did not want to share the tangle of my current life dilemma with a group of willing listeners at the time, as I am usually willing to talk about just about anything with just about anyone.

But I had not filled out that part of the form. Somehow, with that particular tangle I was in, it felt like too much, too vulnerable. Thus, it was with a sense of respect and gratitude that I regarded at my new friend who would be the focus of our small group’s attention on our final evening together. It really did feel like she’d offer us a gift—the gift of sharing a story about where she was feeling most tender, most bruised, most without-a-good-compass on the map of her life.

Most likely it seems clear to each of us why this act that my friend undertook required courage. To sit in front of people one doesn’t know well, and tell one’s story, and ask for questions. She was invited to share as much of her story as needed, in order for us to have the context to ask good questions. Even with people we do know well, telling the real story, opening the real vulnerable spots, can feel intimidating. Her story was one of a major decision in a relationship. The tenderest of tender parts, her heart, the shape of her life, was on the line. She was at choice, in a moment of decision. Especially in the social context we live in now, when communication that is “efficient, clear, and well-managed” is most profitable, and profit is most valued by many people, it is an act of vulnerability to bring forth such a story to a group. Such stories are always tangled, unclear, layered, and slow.

It’s also an act of courage and vulnerability to listen—that is, to really listen. Stories offered in settings like this take on a stretchy, clingy weight of their own. Each participant has some tender part of themselves that aches with the thrust of past decisions; each listener immediately remembers a friend, or relative, or partner, for whom such a story would also resonate. Each person listens, first, embedded in their own lives, because that is after all how we experience the world.

And that is where the act of vulnerability comes in, for listeners, for those who will be seeking the open and honest questions. Not only might the story we hear resonate with our own experiences and create discomfort or recognition. But also, then, we are called to sort through those feelings and reflections and discomforts with a fine toothed comb so as to get to the open question for her. What is mine, and what is hers? I must ask myself with each reaction that rises to the surface. I must be willing, as a listener seeking an open question, to fully acknowledge the edgy, surprising memories that are mine alone, that will not be of use to forming an honest question. If I form a question based on my experience of her story alone, I am asking a question that is about me, and I already think I know part of the answer.

Much more vulnerable, much more difficult, then, to ask a question to which I do not know any part of the answer, because it is a question for her.

Not a question about her. Not about her story, or about her situation, or about the other people involved. Those are fact questions. An open question is a question for her—a question that is essentially, at its best, in service to the person telling the story. It is not possible for me to even begin to know the answer to a question like this.

I and the other three holders of space for my friend took our time to craft questions for her. In my case, I took three full minutes (which is a long time, as any of you who teach or facilitate will know—even thirty seconds can feel like an eternity in a silent room, depending on the context!) of silent sitting. In that time, I peeled back layer after layer of my own thoughts and stories, in order to discover a question that could perhaps be in service to her.

“What does love feel like?”

What does love feel like. Not what does it mean, or how does it make you feel, or what do you love about the world, or the person, or do you feel loved when they do X. Generally, those questions are things that I thought I knew something about. I’ve read bell hooks’ book on love, and a one or two other things that help me understand healthy connection. I know what I love about the world, and I think I know what my friend loves about the world because I know her a little now. But there is literally no way I could possibly know what love feels like to her.

When I got down to this layer of questioning, I was startled. It felt so unusual to be asking a question that I could not imagine the answer for.

How much of our lives do we spend doing this? Asking each other questions that we, consciously or subconsciously, think we already know the answer for? Or the beginning of the answer?

Most of us out here in the daily world of our lives prefer to have at least the illusion of control. We like to move around with some idea about what is going on, and where we fit in it. Much of the way advice is offered, or conversations unfold, revolves around the crux of shared knowledge. At the very least, advice emerges from what WE think is happening, how it relates to our own lives and memories, and what WE might do in a situation.

But with another human, there is always more information than we could absorb. Even with ourselves, in fact. This is why the open and honest questions of Parker Palmer’s work are so important. Making space to ask them of others requires of us that we are willing to not know what they will say, or where the conversation will go. To not even think we know.

Asking questions in service to another person is both a way to hold the gift of their question and a way to offer them a gift in return. And looking for that question, at least in my experience, is a process of peeling back layer after layer of my own assumptions, judgments, and stories. Noticing that my first question inside my head is a leading question—one that assumes I know the answer I want the person to give. Noticing that the next layer in my head is one that makes me feel defensive—why wouldn’t they do it this way, my way, the RIGHT way? Noticing another layer where the story the person in front of me is telling me about their lives gets tangled again in my own experience, as I think about my own relationship transformations, decisions about schooling or children, process of coping with emotional turmoil. Noticing how much effort it takes to root out the tendrils of my own stories from that tangle to really hear their story.

This effortful noticing, I think, is what Denise Levertov refers to when she talks about holding the questions of others in empty hands. She says they are

songbird eggs that can still hatch,
if you keep them warm…

She says the questions, like butterflies,

trust you not to injure
their scintillant fur, their dust.

Digging through the layers, gently removing the viney tendrils of my own attachments to a story from the actual story I am hearing, is the work required to be in service to the stories and questions of others. To ask a question for another is to seek not to injure the other’s story, the other’s path of discovery.

What might it feel like, if we were more routinely able to stand witness to each other? TO not shrink back from the difficulty of a tangle, but also not to move on our impulse to fix it? What would happen if we allowed ourselves to occupy that witnessing space in our bodies for one another? Perhaps a profundity could open up—the enormity of inhabiting the fundamental unknowing, the gulf that separates us from one anothers’ internal worlds, that also joins us in the universal unknowing. And the enormity, at the same time as inhabiting that unknowing, of holding and being held, of offering and receiving through vulnerable witness.

This is a far cry from the advice-giving world of bullet lists on the internet, or easy memes and quotes telling us how to fix it. The swiftness of networked communication may leave many of us feeling that pressure—to fix, fix, fix it all. When really, we are called to listen, listen, and listen again. To help each other listen. To sit in stillness long enough that we can truly cup our empty hands to hold the questions of others as gifts that they offer us, ones that might even help us to listen to ourselves more clearly as well.

Song 3, #108, My Life Flows on in Endless Song

Closing Words

Because of those who came before,
we are;
in spite of their failings, we
believe;
because of, and in spite of the
horizons of their vision,
we, too, dream.

Let us go remembering to praise,
to live in the moment,
to love mightily,
to bow to the mystery.

-Barbara Pescan

 

 

 

Status

Fever/Rest

3/14/20

When I decided to leave Philadelphia earlier than planned from my research trip to the F.C. Wood Historical Medical Library, I was reading the founding documents of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, from 1793. The CPP is the longest standing settler-colonist medical institution on the continent. Benjamin Rush founded it, wanting a place for young men to come get trained in the art of physics—and of course, Benjamin Rush was also one of the signatories on the Declaration of Independence, so his name and the institution hold a coveted space in the settler narrative of this nation’s founding. In late August of 1793, the College of Physicians was asked to provide recommendations for what we now know as “public health” during a yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia. This outbreak ended up lasting until 1795. I was reading this document as the staff and administration of the College of Physicians and its’ sub-institutions, the Mutter Museum and the F.C. Wood Historical Medical Library, were having an all-staff meeting to announce the closure, for two weeks, of most functions of the institution, in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic in North America. The experience was surreal, to say the least.

I want to write about this, and share it with you because as I was reading, I was thinking about the way that health, disease, fear, and love bind us all together, across space and time. As fear spreads virally across our social media even faster than the exponential curve of infection’s outbreak across our communities, I also see love, and calls for community care, iterating outwards. The fact that I, like so many of us, chose to go home, and to minimize my contact with other people as much as possible, is not just because I live with chronic illness—it’s because each of us, each body, each heart we carry around, has a chance to be in loving community, even in a time of fear and mortality, by pausing, and resting, and reimagining what the world can look like.

So now I’ll tell you the story about the College of Physician’s response to yellow fever. You can see a couple of images of the handwriting and the document here. Two things in particular stood out to me. First, the way that understandings of what a disease is, and how it is communicated, have changed over time. Lots of folks have written about this elsewhere, but I’ll add my two cents as well. And second, I was deeply struck by recommendations the Fifth, and the Eighth, from the College of Physicians’ list.

Notes from the August 25th, 1793 Special Meeting of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Here’s a transcript of the College’s earliest recommendations in full:

August 26th 1793.

The [College of Physicians Committee on Fever] reported a Copy of Directions for preventing the further progress of the malignant Fever, which being amended was agreed upon. It was agreed to have it signed by the Vice President and Secretary, and to send a Copy of it to the Mayor. The directions were as follows, viz.

The College of Physicians having taken into consideration the malignant and contagious Fever which now prevails in this City, have agreed to recommend to their Fellow Citizens the following means of preventing its progress.

First. That all unnecessary intercourse should be avoided with such persons are infected by it.

Second. To place a mark upon the door or window of such houses as have any infected persons in them.

Third. To place the persons infected in the Centre of Large and Airy Rooms, in Beds without Curtains, and to pay the strictest regard to cleanliness by frequently changing their Body, and Bed Linen; also by removing as speedily as possible all offensive matters from their Rooms.

Fourth. To provide a large and airy hospital in the neighborhood of the City, for the reception of such poor persons as cannot be accommodated with the above advantages in Private houses.

Fifth. To put a stop to the tolling of the Bells.

Sixth. To bury such persons as die of the fever in carriages, and in as private a manner as possible.

Seventh. To keep the streets and wharves of the city as clean as possible—As the Contagion of the Disease may be taken into the Body, and pass out of it without producing the Fever, unless it be rendered active by some occasional Cause, the following means should be attended to prevent the Contagion from being excited into Action in the Body.

Eighth. To avoid all Fatigue of Body and Mind.

Ninth. To avoid standing or sitting in the Sun, also in a Current of Air, or in the evening air.

Tenth. To accommodate the dress to the Weather, and to exceed rather in warm than in cold clothing.

Eleventh. To avoid Intemperence, but to use fermented Liquors such as Wine, Beer and Cider with Moderation.

The College concede Fires to be very ineffectual, if not dangerous means of checking the progress of the Fever. They have reason to place more dependence upon the burning of Gunpowder. The Benefits of Vinegar and Camphire are confined chiefly to infected Rooms, and they cannot be used too frequently apon handkerchiefs or in smellingBottles, bu persons whose duty calls them to visit or attend the sick.

            By Order of the College

            William Shippen James Vice President

Saml. P. Griffitts Sec.y.

 

                                    On Motion.

Here’s some historical context, before I dive into why I find #5 and #8 particularly compelling (I am guessing you already have an idea of that anyway).

Fever

At the time, a prevailing theory of disease had to do with coming into contact with “bad air,” also sometimes called “miasma.” (check out great scholarship by Conevery Valencius and Gregg Mitman on 18-19th century relations to air and health). Thus, some of their suggestions revolved around getting rid of bad or stagnant air. They suggested doing this by cleaning the city, and to be sure that every place had fresh air, including the bedchambers surrounding people suffering with the fever, and hospital wards for those who did not have airy bedchambers at home. The College informed the State Governor, after receiving a testy letter from him, that they believed the “malignant fever” had been imported, though they were not sure which ship it had come on. So the safety and cleanliness of the ships, and sailors was stressed, as well as the cleanliness of the port, and of the streets, and of houses. Among other things, the College recommended dumping “unslaked lime” on the “necessaries”—toilet areas outside of houses where the contents of chamber pots were disposed.

“To purify the City from latent Infection, we want to recommend that every House, particularly those in which there have been any sick ,should be thoroughly cleaned and kept open, so as to admit fresh air through every Aperture—the Walls should be whitewashed and Gunpowder burned in all the Apartments—the Beds and Woolen Apparell of the Sick should either be destroyed or smoked with gunpowder in a close Room and exposed to the Air and Rain. Unslaked Lime should be thrown down the Necessaries, and the streets should be kept clean, especially in the confined parts of the city.”

Ibn Sina (Avicenna), a physician in the 11th century, as well as several others in the following centuries, proposed early versions of a germ theory of disease by describing the process of contagion. Antoni von Leeuwenhoek was surprised to see what he called “animalcules” in a drop of water upon gazing through the first microscope he created in 1677. Those longstanding voices couldn’t outweigh the force of belief in miasma theory, though, an approach to understanding illness rooted in part in the 2nd century Roman physician Galen of Pergamon’s writings. So a germ-theory approach to what we now call “infections” wasn’t taken up by European medical lore until the late 19th century, after Louis Pasteur’s work on bacteria in food.

In brief, “western” medicine or “biomedicine” approaches to working with what we now call infectious disease are pretty new, relative to the history of human health (that is, all of human history). A hundred and fifty years, more or less. Pharmaceutical antibiotics were developed in the 1920s, but not widely used until the 1940s. That’s eighty years ago. Pharmaceutical antivirals started to emerge in the 1960s, and are most widely used with the herpes family of viruses (which includes HSV1 and 2, as well as shingles, chicken pox, and Epstein-Barr virus). That’s just sixty years ago. Anti-retrovirals for HIV are even newer.

Folks have been working with plants that address bacterial and viral infections for much longer—but, of course, in the last 150 years we’ve collectively changed the landscape in which all kinds of infections operate. So though herbalists are out there working hard to support all kinds of infections (shoutout, folks, to herbalists helping folks understand immune system support and other interventions around viral infections), things look different now than they did in Benjamin Rush’s time. This last is a little bit of a “duh” statement, but I make it because not everything looks different, and that’s why I am so touched by recommendation #5 and #8 above.

Rest

Fifth recommendation of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia to the City Governance on the matter of public health during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793.

Fifth. To put a stop to the tolling of the bells.

In the context of an urban disease outbreak, a bell tolling was a public acknowledgement of a death. When I read this line, I heard in it a plea to City officials to stop the proliferation of panic. To stop the thing that was reminding people every moment of every day that people were dying, dying, dying. Not because the College of Physicians wanted people to forget the seriousness of the outbreak, or to pretend that people were NOT dying. Each toll of the Bell created a different kind of instability in the hearts of the people who heard them. Surviving a pandemic requires more than good medical care—finding moments of equanimity, patience, rest, and grace are also medicine for the heart. Obviously, the College wasn’t under any illusions that less bells tolling would decrease the spread of the outbreak, or give people the opportunity to feel peaceful in every moment, because that’s not possible ever, let alone in the context of an epidemic or pandemic. But ceasing the tolling of the bells could allow citizens to potentially have access to equanimity, patience, rest and grace. More space for the heart and mind, more space for the immune system (though that concept wasn’t yet at play, it certainly is now).

Eighth. To avoid all Fatigue of Body and Mind.

This one, too, I read as the College of Physicians seeking ways to support the capacity of people to respond emotionally, socially, to the infectious outbreak. Rest, rest, rest, they said. Avoid fatigue–even mental fatigue. Rest. Let the bells cease tolling, let us keep in our hearts the fact that people are dying (people are always dying) and many of us are afraid (someone is always afraid) and we are all connected in these entwined communities where we can take care of each other and ourselves (we can always take care of each other and ourselves). Rest.

What would it look like if we allowed these moments, shot through with occasional panic and overdose on news, to be interspersed with rest? With deep rest. With just-sit-the-fuck-down. What would happen to our hearts, if we let ourselves rest—obviously, those who are ill can always already rest, and those who are well can support them in love and caring community. But what if we rest, even when we are not ill? Rest is the nadir of capitalism, I think, and we have in front of us a massive opportunity to rest, and to help others rest. What does it take, in your life, in the lives of the people physically, emotionally, spiritually closest to you, to rest? What would it take for everyone to have consistent access to rest?

How would the world change, how would our communities change, how would our hearts change?

I invite you to pause, close your eyes, and sit with this question for a space of some breaths.

What would it be like if we just let ourselves rest?

Last year I had cancer. I had never noticed before that I didn’t know how to rest, but I learned. I lay on my couch for hours at a time waiting to heal from surgery, from exhaustion, from the mental and physical process of losing so much of what I thought was already mine, from losing parts of my body. Last year on the couch I rested, staring out the window at the flapping flag, and the trees. Skeletons in the winter in the wind. For hours last year, I noticed again for the first time (because each time is the first time) the fact that breath goes in and out of my body. Every day. Multiple times a day. The fact that I breathe, barely thinking about it, all the time. I rested, and noticed this breath. What would it be like if we let ourselves just notice the breath? Our own, and that of the wind? If we rested, and noticed how these breaths move against things?

Living in a pandemic invites us to access our connection with the inexplicable, the mysterious, the wonder—and the ways fear and grief are bound up with the mysterious, not just joy and transcendence. It invites us to show up for our loved ones, for ourselves, to show up for the neighbors we didn’t know, to show up for those who cannot access what they need in order to survive. This is grace, the blessing of the earth, already within each of us, if we listen closely. Maybe, like me, you call that the energies of the earth; maybe you call it essential Buddha nature. You might understand it as agape—divine love, or the wisdom and energy of ancestors echoing down the years.

Snowdrops in Bartram’s Garden on March 9th, 2020. Beyond them is the oldest gingko tree on the continent; beyond that, not visible, the skyline of Philadelphia.

Living in a pandemic also invites us to reckon with the troubled history of this continent—this is not its only pandemic. Remember smallpox? One of many imported diseases that killed hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people when colonists arrived. How do we live with disease, now, in a way that honors the past, and works to name it, and to build relationships that move towards justice?

May our ancestors who survived the plagues move through us with their strength and courage. May those who did not survive the plagues move through us with their resolve and clarity.

With love and courage,

Charis

(In)Attentive Bodies

This is a draft I wrote in 2009. Based on ethnographic research at Chicago’s Midway Airport, it’s shaped by a time I was especially attentive to affect/management in public spaces. This was thanks to a graduate class on the subject of Public Affect, in which we read Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects, among other things. I found that book to be written in a way that opened up possibilities for connection, imagination, for the most part. And, when necessary, cut them off. Stewart’s non-linear, loosely narrative lyrical style in that book continues to influence me. Recently, I found Zach Savich’s Diving Makes the Water Deep, which, though from a different set of trainings and concerns, does a similarly striking job of incising lyrical moments out of the fabric of daily life, in its pains and awkwardnesses. As I transition from writing-as-graduate-student to writing-as-scholar-in-the-world, I am working on finding the lyrical parts of my voice again. Comments welcome.


(In)Attentive Bodies

Shells

Moments of encounter in non-places have shells. They protect themselves from, or are resistant to, penetration. That is, there are only so many ways it is acceptable to behave in these conditions. Our delimitation as subjects builds shells on our interactions—rule- or custom-bound, it is difficult to parse out that feels real and why. The problem is not so much that airports are non-relational, ahistorical and un-identitied as Marc Augé has argued. Instead, what is troubling is that these processes happen in a different register, one that is overdetermined and abstract. The nature of the contact zone that is the airport—contact between subjects, between subjects and the state, mediated by motion—is magnified and hyper-real. The historicization and identifying of non-places is ‘temporary and ephemeral’ as well as spectacular.[i]

A sense of singularity is what gives places their place-ness—of induplicability within which subjects can enact their own tenuous and shifting individuality. Non-places are duplicated: subjects are curtailed within them.

 

Bomb-Making Chemicals

You are singled out, led to the line with the puffer. You ask what it is, and are told that it will jet high-velocity air onto your body, suck it up into an orifice and there test it for bomb-making chemicals. It’s manufactured by GM and costs too much money.

In front of you is a woman in full chador veiling. She is with her young son, whose rolling backpack has Spiderman leaping across its side. Behind you is someone who you might call a ‘white bread American’ if you were in a judging mood. You turn to her after several minutes of the security-line shuffle, after watching several people get puffed.

‘This is ridiculous,’ you say, by way of conversation. She looks at you and replies, ‘Well, I don’t know about that. If this is what they have to do to keep our country safe from terrorists, I’m happy to do it.’ Uli Linke says that political and national spaces are ‘corporeal, somatosensuous formations, fundamentally bodied productions.’[ii] Here, a woman has taken responsibility for the state with her own body.

‘I’m sorry?’ you say to her.

‘Well, I mean, you don’t know what she could be hiding under there,’ she gestures towards the woman in the chador. You turn away, with no words.

 

Salem

The body is under fire. We have been subject to scrutiny in the past, but perhaps not with such technologies of surveillance—watching-machines in other bodies as well as in the cameras. So many bodies in contentious non-places, in limin, in motion. We are each lent power against other bodies, in a sort of mobile or transitory Salem.

‘Please keep your personal belongings with you at all times. Unattended baggage is subject to search, confiscation, damage, and removal. Do not accept items from people unknown to you. Please report any suspicious behavior to airport police using the white courtesy telephone. We hope to see you again soon.’ An escalating scale of threat to each individual 30-litre rolling black suitcase.

Listening, you move from a forward fold into Warrior 2. People are trying not to stare, as they always do. Nobody else stretches before flights—nobody that you have seen. Is that how suspicion is constituted, by the fact of doing something with your body that nobody else does? The body and the nation are normative—a certain kind of blank slate on which power draws. Transgressions are diseases, quarantined and shunned. Contact between the body and the nation happens in zones that are ‘sites for the making of subjectivities through the production of terror and violence.’[iii]

 

The Bunny Slope

A young man says goodbye to his parents. Hugs his mother, shakes his father’s hand. His father awkwardly pulls him in for a one-armed man-hug. They pull away, wave, and he heads for security. Mom and dad turn towards you, and you want to tell them he will be o.k.—an upswelling of feeling in response to the expressions on their faces. Son walks partway down the blue-circle line, for passengers with young children or infrequent travelers. He sees where he is, and determinedly walks out of the blue-circle line into the green-square line, for casual travelers with light carryons. He is young and male—he knows what he is doing.

 

“We do things with power, and to it”[iv]

Power here is baby-faced, innocent. It swirls up from the crackle of a radio, the unfocusing of a newly-minted T.S.A. agent’s eyes as she listens. Where did it come from? You imagine a three-month training course, phrases like ‘work for the security and freedom of the American people.’ You begin to think you see it in the way they stand at the security gates, embodied state authority, complete with bored, vaguely arrogant eye rolls. Please go back and remove your belt.

 

 Precious Cargo

The sensation of looming or fluctuating unsafety affects people differently. Some people find one place to sit and do not move for two hours, reading Newsweek, GQ, Seventeen, without looking up. Some wander the shops, immersing themselves in the security and certainty of pricetags. A few wander about, sit on the floor in undesignated spaces, are the cause of other’s discomfort with their bodies. These few are the young, the reckless, the foolhardy—the ones who maybe have not yet realized that sitting in undesignated space may soon become grounds for search, confiscation, damage, and removal.

 

Trickle Down

You have to pee. How far can a body be disciplined? Not this far. Eyeing the bathroom, you approach a fellow traveler who is reading a Stephen King novel. Fleeting thoughts about mental instability as indicated by enjoying Cujo cross your mind.

“Excuse me, sorry, I have to use the restroom. Would you mind watching my bags for just a second?”

Of course. She smiles. Fleeting thoughts cross her mind about suspicious bathroom-going and people who wear bandanas around their necks. Even here, past the security gate, nobody feels quite safe.

Authority is unidirectional: for once the trickle-down effect is working. Orders (system-makings, rationalizations, codifications, regimentings of the body) come down from ‘The Top,’ from ‘On High.’ They filter (dilute, winnow, separate) through the ranks, like bio-accumulating toxins in reverse. When the order(s) finally reach your body, it is in a half-hearted manner. A manner that assumes you are willing to police yourself for free.

 

Technologies of Privacy

Walking out of the jetway, you are confronted by the light—fluorescent, unrelenting—of the Los Angeles International terminal. Evading business-people in pantsuits trotting along ahead of rolling suitcases, your first stop is the bathroom. If nothing else, a stall will provide the illusion of privacy after 22 hours of close and unspeaking contact with other bodies.

Privacy means, among other things, time alone with one’s own body. There are things to do in private that are shunned from the attention of others—toenail clipping, nose picking. Moments when we can break the rules and be in our bodies.

You stand up. The toilet flushes immediately—the paper seat-cover swivels round. Your body has triggered these things, but not because you told it to. The soap, like the water, is excited by the motion of your hand and comes squirting out. Paper towels or blowdryers acknowledge your presence but shun your touch.

Perhaps the airport bathroom is the next step on a trajectory of technologies of privacy. Machines pay attention to your body, duty bound as they are. The relationship between the motion of your hand and the action of the world is hard to judge—and hard to control, based on the puddles of soap and paper towels below dispensers.

Your body is unrequired to know that other bodies have been present here—no-touch technologies also make it possible for those others to ignore the possibility that you have been here. Each body at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit will trigger the same machine reactions, but the smooth white surfaces and vertical, sterilizable partitions can convince even the most attentive of us that we are always already alone here.

Sometimes, it can convince us we have not even been here. Your body touches nothing that other bodies have touched. This is meant to be a comfort. You are left with only the scent of the soap, vaguely industrial.

 

Unknown Knowns[v]

At the baggage claim for a flight from Orlando, everyone has Mickey Mouse t-shirts or plastic ears. They look like they’ve had the time of their lives—something halfway between delight and I’ve-just-drunk-the-KoolAid. Claiming their bags is the last act they will perform on their brief out-of-normality venture, and not nearly as exciting as the Tilt-A-Whirl or the Icees. But perhaps something akin to that—bags coming down the chute are looked on as new discoveries, continents of things that could possibly be ours, each time.

The idea of possession obsesses us. We are pressed by it, between it. The possibility of things being ours makes something come alive. We forget that we own our bodies

 

Proximity

People walk around the baggage claim areas with their phones attached to their heads. Or texting, or dialing. The process of rendering bodies more proximate must be instantaneous. What would happen if suddenly all our cell phones died? And ‘die’ is exactly the right word, prosthetic appendages that they have become. Would we know how to speak to one another, how to arrange a meeting, how to make a pizza? Possibly it would take a ‘calamity’ of this nature to turn what we don’t know we know into something that we do know we know.

 

Body to Body

When we say ‘it affects me’ we mean ‘it makes it obvious that there are things inside me, squidgy and slippery knowledges, that I didn’t know that I know. And it makes me uncomfortable to come face-to-face (or body-to-body) with things that are inside me that I didn’t know were there.’

 

You are leaving a sterile zone.

At the place where sterility is separated from profanity—the inner sanctum of legitimized traveling bodies delineated from the dirty and dangerous outside—the mode of attention is unidirectional and blindered. All stationary bodies face the stream of disembarking travelers. Moving bodies exit, searching faces for the familiar. Those passing through the border zone between the two states traverse an embarrassing liminality during which the validity, security and authenticity of their personhood is questioned. Once approved, they pass into the ‘sterile zone’ as sterilized objects.

Instructions for use follow us around. The trash can reads ‘Chicago: We’re glad you’re here!’ Next to it is a sign that says ‘Please meet your passengers at baggage claim (downstairs). No standing. No sitting.’ Inside the terminal, an informational display ‘provides context’ for the spectacle of the B-3 bomber on exhibit, suspended from the ceiling. The Chicago Municipal Airport, we learn, was renamed ‘Midway Airport’ on June 23, 1949, ‘in honor of these heroes of the Battle of Midway.’[vi]

Walking from one terminal to the other, you pass by photography of the battle of Midway, descriptions of duration and destruction, death and heroism, all of which have helped to Preserve Your Freedom. History meets spectacle as the specter of death and threat loom above the surface of the normal.

 

 

 

[i] p. 74: Augé, Marc. 2008 [1992]. Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. London: Verso Press.

[ii]p. 210: Linke, Uli. 2006. “Contact Zones: Rethinking the sensual life of the state.” Anthropological Theory. Vol 6: pp. 205-225.

[iii] p. 212: ibid.

[iv]p. 84: Stewart, Kathleen. 2007. Ordinary Affects. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

[v] Zizek, Slavoj. 2007 “The Reality of the Virtual.” Film by Ben Wright. Olive Films.

[vi] Chicago Midway Memorial Committee. 2008. “Midway Memorial Exhibit: Preserving Our Freedom” pamphlet.

On Community Education

“To teach in varied communities not only our paradigms must shift but also the way we think, write, speak. The engaged voice must never be fixed and absolute but always changing, always evolving in dialogue with a world beyond itself.”

-bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress (p 11)

I am inspired, in my community education practices as much as in my work in formal classrooms, by the insights of scholar-practitioners like bell hooks. She hits the proverbial nail on the head when she notes that teachers themselves have to shift their understandings of their own work when they teach across different communities. She also, later in this text, refers to teaching as an “act of radical love.” The ability of the teacher–or, perhaps better, the facilitator of a learning experience–to both be flexible and to also be present enough with her students to learn how to use love, deep care, as the ground of her teaching, is key.

Key to what, you might ask? To many things, I suspect, but I am thinking here of two in particular. First, deep care as a mode of being in a classroom, and the willingness to flex in teaching approaches, has a far greater capacity to build relationship with students. And it is through relationship that learning, true learning, happens.

Second, and perhaps more radical, is the notion I hold dear that when we engage in the process of teaching (and learning from) one another, we are opening up a space of huge potential. That space is not merely full of the possibility of more people being familiar with certain content–the date of the formalization of medical education in the United States, for instance, or how anthropologists think about “terrorism” in the aftermath of the Cold War.

More importantly, the potential spaces of teaching and learning can allow us to hear each other, to recognize each other, across dramatically different life experiences. These acts of hearing and recognition are, many activists and social scientists hold, the beginning of processes of healing the various hurts that individuals and communities sustain in this dramatically difficult late-capitalist world. And if this hearing one another is possible in a classroom, it is possible in the wider world.

These are the key elements that I bring with me into community education:

A desire and willingness to be flexible, meeting the learners or participants where they are at when they come in.

The capacity to hold space for the kinds of openness and vulnerability that are required on my part as an educator in order for a space of deep care, of love, to be a central part of how the learning space plays out.

A commitment to listening to the needs of the group at hand, and learning with them along the way.

Academic Teaching Statement

Thanks for your interest in my approach to teaching in university and college settings.

As an educator, I strive to help students draw together the contexts of their lives at large with the theoretical concerns and analytical frameworks of anthropological endeavors. The broad goal of my work in an anthropology classroom is to provide students not only with content related to ethnographic and historical research, but also with the relevant analytical tools to understand more deeply the worlds that they live in.

I present my students with a variety of materia in order to stimulate thoughtful reflection and discussion. Drawing them into scholarly and activist conversations about knowledge, critical observation, and careful analysis, I give them the tools necessary for them think reflexively about their own experiences and their own communities. By working through ethnographic texts, popular media, theoretical frameworks, analytical and creative writing alongside my students, I help them learn how to develop curiosities and questions uniquely their own.

As an engaged scholar, a core objective of any classroom teaching is to enable students to make connections with communities near them or in their chosen research sites in ways that are meaningful and transformative. The classroom is never the limit, in my approach to teaching—in fact, it’s only the starting ground. Students’ written explorations, including final papers and presentations, are often grounded in part in local engagements. For instance, the first-year writing seminar I taught in 2016 received a small grant from Engaged Cornell to partner with the local cooperative grocery. This broadens students’ analysis of economic and food justice, as well as their understanding of where, and with what kinds of experts, their learning can take place.

My training as an experiential educator, and my engagement at the level of community education—through community college teaching as well as facilitation of educational workshops in various communities—gives me a unique approach to the process of classroom education at the university level. For instance, I frequently use workshop modules drawn from activist work around issues of oppression in order to help students better understand difficult concepts like systemic racism. One such activity involves presenting students with short scenarios and asking them to reflect on what aspect of their own identity would be first in their consideration of their response to the scenario. They move to spaces around the room labeled with terms like race, class, gender, citizenship status, physical ability, sexual orientation, and age, and upon arrival, they discuss where they are standing, why they are there, and what other aspects of their identity they considered while making this choice. Students have remarked on the deeper insight they gain to their own subconscious understandings of how their own identities shape their lives.

They also often reflect on what elements of others’ experience may be visible or invisible to them, and the kinds of privilege that may be afforded in that matter of invisibility. I offer students a space to grapple with such realizations of relative levels of privilege and the matter of diversity in and out of the classroom. This enriches the kind of conversation about texts and course materials we can have, enabling clearer communication across difference and diversity in the classroom and outside of it.

I have a practical and theoretical commitment to making classrooms generative and generous spaces for learning. I am attentive to the different learning styles of each individual student, while simultaneously offering appropriate challenges. At the beginning of every course I take the time with students to collaboratively develop a model for what an ideal learning environment looks like for them—based on their own experiences. By marking what are useful practices in the classroom, and what detract from classroom and broader learning experiences, this collaboratively generated list of “productive” and “detrimental” behaviors starts to create an atmosphere of trust, and the beginnings of a productive learning community in the class. I am committed to seeing each student as an individual who has growing edges as well as areas that she excels and finds her passion. Noting that discomfort can be a mark of learning, we work together to create a learning environment where each person is asked to take responsibility for their speech, their actions, and their arguments. I foster an atmosphere in which we come to see that we are all always learning together. I facilitate discussion of challenging course material in such a way that each student feels that their voice is heard, offering them tools for communication in other parts of their lives.

To the end of supporting a diverse community of learners, I have developed a repertoire of teaching strategies that cover the gamut of learning styles. I incorporate audiovisual material alongside written texts and lectures, engaging different kinds of attention and allowing students to make different kinds of observations. Using material drawn from popular culture, film and music, as well as current news articles and critical ethnographic texts enables students to draw connections between analytical and scholarly work and the work of everyday life. To synthesize and analyze such materials, I routinely ask students to write freely and reflectively upon entering the classroom. Students have reflected that free-writing in the beginning of class enables them to “feel prepared to discuss” their observations, thoughts, and analyses relevant to the topic at hand—this is a technique I find as useful in large lecture courses as it is in smaller seminars.

I ask students to lead a portion of classroom discussions on key course materials at least once per semester, a process they describe as “scary but useful,” and frequently reflect on as one of their favorite parts of a class discussion because they “get to hear” what their peers are thinking about a text. I help students develop such abilities to parse and communicate to peers about difficult or new information by using online learning technologies to extend written discussions on course material. In more guided formal essays and informal written assignments, I give students the opportunity to build their analytical engagement in a way that is useful for their chosen course of study and path in life. I craft written assignments so that students are exposed to skills central to excellent thinking and communication: honing observational skills, taking and synthesizing notes, crafting research questions, drafting essays and other writing for peer and instructor review, and presenting information to relevant communities. Students say that my peer review process is useful to them, especially because the ways they are asked to think about their peer’s writing itself helps them reflect on what constitutes good, clear writing for their own work.

I believe that a good education serves to give students tools to think with, content to reflect on, and new ways to relate to the world. As an educator, I seek never to subsume my desire for students to know particular facts to the reality that they will, after our class is done, continue to live in a world that is riven by many kinds of divisions. An education in the social sciences, done well, gives students the tools to analyze, historicize, and discuss these divisions in a way that does not create more divisions. I teach as a practice of practice of hope—for my students and myself—that in learning how to learn, and how to think generously and generatively, we might together make a world that is not quite so violent, not quite so divisive, not quite so uneasy.

Reflections on Decolonization: Melissa Rosario on Savage Minds

http://savageminds.org/2016/05/09/healing-the-break-a-diasporican-project-of-return/#_ednref1

Dr Melissa Rosario’s reflections on the embodied work/love of decolonization. Her budding project, “Center for Embodied Pedagogy and Action (CEPA),” is so named  “to signal its dual mission of building eco-social futures in Puerto Rico while fostering purposeful island/diaspora encounters at home.”

Check out her webpage, too, at:

www.decolonizePR.com

Healing Justice: Quick Thoughts

These last two weeks of July, I have the pleasure of co-leading a social justice training program for a rockin’ group of teen social justice activists. They come from all over the country to hang out and learn together with the Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice’s National Youth Justice Training program. Many of these folks identify as Unitarian Universalists, and some do not. The program is aimed at providing a spiritually grounded approach to social justice activism (see this book for an example of how that can work), and we partner with other awesome organizations, lots of them, to work with our students through anti-oppression trainings and internships.

We try to frame this approach in order to take seriously the toxic and real consequences of racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, ableism and more in the contemporary United States. We also want to take seriously the reality that it is easy, in sight of the mountains of justice work that have yet to be crossed, to lose our way–to be discouraged, to work so hard we burn ourselves out, to become cynical. Speaking for myself, I believe that grounding our work for justice in the wisdom of spiritual traditions–wherever we find them–helps us all to approach that work with the tools we need in order to do it well, and to do it for the long haul, to do it without burnout.

I do not believe that grounding activism spiritually is the *only* way to do it healthy and for the long haul, though. It seems to me that there must be something that feeds us as activists beyond the bare necessity to do this work–because the bare necessity will never, ever go away, and progress is usually incremental. There are other ways that people feed themselves, care for themselves, beyond explicit links to a spiritual tradition or set of principles that they can turn to, in community with others, when they need support and solace.

What are some of those methods and tools for you?

How do you feed yourself as an activist of whatever stripe while doing the work you do, whatever it is you are called to?

One of my main tools is tea. LoTs of TeA!! Usually of the nervine variety. I’m hoping to share some lemon balm and rose petal tea with the students tonight (in “iced” form) during our “down time” activity, and open up a space for talking about self care. I’m excited by the chance to hear what their own experiences are with feeling overwhelmed, and what tools they use to get their feet back under them.

I’m also excited to share with them some reflections on why it matters really, really deeply that we care for ourselves–and why it also matters that we reach out to everyone in our communities and beyond and make it possible for more and more people to care for themselves. After all, it ought not to just be activists who recognize the need for this kind of time and space–and for me at least it is part of my work as an activist to make a world possible where self-care, time off, relaxation, and re-inspiration are accepted as norms for all people, rather than taken as “cool,” “radical,” or otherwise outside of everyday experience.

There are many aspects of healing justice beyond the question of self-care: think about health care equality in terms of access to care, as on indigenous reserves around this continent. Think about disparities in respect and treatment quality at hospitals based on class and race. Think about worldwide inequities in the cost of medicines for debilitating diseases like HIV/AIDS and malaria. Think also about the way that most medical systems treat a symptom, rather than a person with a whole life–with a community–embedded in an ecological reality. Think about the toxic burden placed on communities of color and economically marginalized communities in the form of refineries, factories, garbage dumps and more that are placed in their neighborhoods.

These matters and many more are central to discussions of what it means to seek healing justice. Given a principle of starting where we are, though, I start with ourselves–asking how we may nurture ourselves in order to better understand and resist the oppressions offered by the current status quo.

Healing manifesta, Part the First

Community class on Basic Herbal Medicine Making at Epic Skill Swap 2013

What is all this?

I’m Charis. I’m an herbalist, a scholar, a teacher, a child, a woman, a witch with words and herbs. I’m a community organizer and I try to be a vessel for compassion and justice. Drawing on my background as an anthropologist of medicine, healing and religion, as well as my long term commitment to building a socially and environmentally just world, I created TumbleUp Wellness in order to help our communities address our health and wellness needs. Fierce Blossom Herbals, offering teas and tinctures and more, grounds this work in the world of plants and natural remedies.

Logistical realities that come out of all this? I do holistic wellness and herbal consultations on a sliding scale that is based on ability to pay–whatever you decide your ability is–and I’m open to work-trades as well. I strive to be accessible in a number of ways–I’m available for consults and workshops in person, by phone, or over the Interwebz.

How did I get here?

I’ve come to my herbal medicine and wellness practice for many reasons. Most powerfully, I feel deeply the suffering of the residents of this planet. I see huge strains on our society–on our globalizing cultures. On our planet and her ecosystems. I see social inequity–oppression and injustice in the form of gaps between the rich and the middle class, let alone between the rich and the chronically poor. I see rising numbers of people incarcerated, predominantly people of color–they and their families becoming traumatized by that system and its systemic racism and cyclical nature. I see a culture of violence and fear–fear of everything from our government to our neighbors to the possibility of a new world. I see suffering and exploitation–much of it at the hands of corporations whose first mission is to get a few people rich. I see activists, and all those who do their best to help their communities, burned out by the depth of the need that is there. I see the horrors of war as they are wreaked at a distance by drones, by bombs, by cross-territory missiles on communities across the planet. Those horrors come home to the United States not only in hyperbolic newscasts, but also in the eyes and hearts of veterans of war who witness so much suffering themselves and, by participation in it, return to us changed.

I see a world where people work so much they are completely exhausted, they lose sight of their heart’s longing. This happens because we have families we love, and we want to feed and support them, and because the system we live with is profoundly unjust–economically, socially, and politically. This culture hurts us–the relentless drive for speed, progress, and getting more and more leaves us empty and lonely for connection.

I see all this–and I also see a world that is full of possibility. Full of hope. Full of people loving and thriving in spite of it all. I see people who struggle through their daily life and still have a million sparks of humor, of desire, of love to give. These sparks are our vitality–they rekindle our hope when it seems all is lost. Now, at what can feel like the end of the world, a chaotic time of changing climate, ecosystems, economies, social structures, now is a time of great possibilities. Great and wonderful changes–we can shepherd these in together.

Tightrope

I am sometimes afraid of what I see–I see myself and all of us walking on the blade of a knife, poised, balanced, breathing slowly, but able to tip off at any moment. How and fear keep tugging us from one side to another.

The challenge of our time, I think, is to live holding both these things in our hands, like the precious gifts they are. Our flesh feels them, each of them, deeply and poignantly–viscerally. We are tugged towards hope, towards profound love, one moment, and towards fear the next.

Rather than thinking we can get rid of either (“be realistic!” some say to the dreamers, “don’t be so hopeful!” Or, “be positive!” say the hopeful people, “ignore the message of the fear!”) it is instead our gift, our great challenge, to hold both together as the visceral realities of our fleshly lives. These are the consequences of being alive on this teeming planet at this time. This is the manifestation of our desire, of the gap–the scary Unknown–that is between what is now, and what is to come.

DSCN4650

Joy and struggle

To bring hope and fear into our bodies, welcome them both, make them at home, and bring them into radical presence in our lives together. This is at the root of the healing work that I do, and at the heart of the healing spaces I create with those who seek them. Your digestion, your back pain, and your eczema each matter–and are each bound up, I believe, with these larger questions. What are you afraid of? What do you long for? Where do you feel stuck in your life? TumbleUp Wellness makes room for your whole self and experience as we seek physical and emotional health together.

 

Going Native At Home…

Hey lovelies,

Just a quick note to let you know about a musing I wrote for AllegraLaboratory entitled “Going Native at Home: Explorations in Method-and Note-ology.”

Themes? I talk about doing field research and what it means to embody a commitment to that process. What’s the difference between writing memory and body memory? Can we honor that?

Caveats? I did not choose the images, though I’ll happily take full responsibility for the text!

More soon on how we talk about healing, what healing has to do with social justice, how communities buy into toxic culture syndrome and what we might be able to do about it. Also, more about plants! (I’m so excited about tincturing hard rooty berry things this week that I broke my coffee grinder…might have to invest in that darn Vitamix….)