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(Politics) What I Want From White People

Politics 150When I write about contentious subjects here at The Writing Desk, I try to make sure that I use a tone that comes across as collaborative and inclusive. I know what a minefield sociopolitical topics are — especially on the Internet — and you can find someone shouting another person down anywhere you can find a comments section. But in order to engage in an actual dialogue, where people actually listen to one another, you have to find a way to show there’s no need for defenses; things that are hard to talk about get easier when you’re talking about it with someone on your side.

It’s important to me to talk about the political situation we find ourselves in because it directly affects me. It’s important to me to be heard because my background and community are far too often ignored. I’m black, I’m gay, I’m Buddhist, and there are a lot of things I see from outside the dominant culture that needs to be talked about. It’s hard for me to speak up because I abhor conflict; but it’s necessary because I want to help make the world a better place and that won’t happen by staying silent.

Over the past year, I’ve had a number of contentious conversations with friends, acquaintances and strangers about all kinds of things — but mostly about race. I’ve learned a lot through those conversations, even though it’s been hard for me to absorb and apply those lessons. Race is still a hard thing for people to talk about, especially white people, because there’s a misunderstanding about the goals we ascribe to each other when we talk about it. I think — and correct me if I’m wrong — white people feel guilty when the subject comes up and you think that we want you to feel guilty. As a black man, I’d like to tell you now that’s just not the case.

So…what do people of color actually want when we bring up race in a conversation? I can’t speak for everyone, but I can tell you what I want when I bring up race. I’m hoping that this is a good starting point for a conversation about conversation. We need to step back and take a look at how we think about discourse so we can jump into the hard stuff secure that we’re trying to hash things out in good faith. I know that a good deal of my white friends are paralyzed by fear of making a mistake and having someone take offense, and I get that. The Internet be scary! But here are a few things that might help make sense of my perspective — and others’ as well.

A couple of caveats first: I’m speaking from my experience of a cis black gay man, but that doesn’t mean I speak for ALL cis black gay men. Black culture is not a monolith, and what I say here may not apply to every black guy you see. If you have friends of color, talk to them about what you read here if you have questions to get their perspective. It’ll likely be different, and that’s a good thing. Having a broader range of perspectives allows you to find what’s consistent and what’s different.

Just as I expect you to know that not all black people are the same, I also know that not all white people are the same. I’m going to use the term ‘white people’ here to categorize a small subset of the white people I’ve interacted with — I know not all white people think a certain way or do things as described here. But I’ve had enough experience with white people to feel pretty confident that most do. If this doesn’t describe you, consider this a pre-emptive acknowledgement alright? Don’t come into my comments with anecdotal counterexamples, because I’m just going to point you to this paragraph.

Cool? Cool.

One of the hardest things for white people to do is to simply admit that racism as an institution exists and it still affects the lives of people of color to this day. But guys, I’m going to need you to acknowledge this is reality. Here in the United States, racism has been a huge part of our social fabric since before the founding of the country. European settlers decimated the Native American population, took the land, and brought over my ancestors from Africa to till the soil and grow the crops that made the US rich in those early days. That history of exploited labor has touched just about every other ethnicity, too — Chinese immigrants worked to build infrastructure for trains to bring people and supplies to the West; Mexican and Latin American immigrants are an essential part of our food production right down to this day; people in Asia, South America, and Africa work on poverty wages to build our clothes, technology, and baubles.

Even though slavery has ended, institutions designed to disenfranchise black Americans, Native Americans, and immigrants have been in place ever since. In the south during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era (and right now), barriers have been in place to make sure people of color either can’t vote or have an incredibly hard time doing so. The justice system targets people of color much more often for infractions and punishes them far more harshly when they’re convicted, and this has been the case for decades. Banks and businesses are far less likely to hire people of color — especially in positions of power — or give them loans that might help them build successful businesses. The historical redlining of America’s cities have segregated communities of color into the worst neighborhoods with the lowest property values, which means that children of color are forced into underfunded, overcrowded schools where they receive substandard education. It’s harder to learn the skills needed to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps; it’s harder to build successful businesses or influence industry; it’s harder to exert political will to actually change the policies that make this so.

Racism affects almost every aspect of civic life for black Americans. Harmful stereotypes are perpetuated by politicians and media; our attempts to correct these problems are dismissed and deflected; our increasing anger is used as justification to keep ignoring us. It’s not OK to be forced to present proof of our own oppression in a manner that white people find acceptable, especially when the goalposts keep moving.

So white people, the very first thing you can do for me is to just admit that racism isn’t over, it’s never been over, and a lot will need to change before it CAN be over. Trust me, I’d LOVE to stop talking about race and I’m pretty sure other black people would love it too. But we didn’t make everything about race in the first place; white people did, and still do, and won’t even acknowledge it happening so we can move on to dismantling racism.

One of the reasons white people have such a hard time even acknowledging racism is a lack of perspective. So many of the conversations I’ve had went nowhere because white friends have not been able to step outside themselves to see what the world looks like to someone who isn’t them. It can feel like you’re saying “I’m not racist, so therefore racism can’t be a problem” or perhaps “If it’s not a big deal to/for me, it really shouldn’t be a big deal to/for you”.

But racism, especially as an institution, actually has object permanence. It exists even when you can’t see it. Racism isn’t just a white person using slurs against a person of color in a hateful or demeaning way; it’s not just burning crosses or beating up or killing us. Racism is having a double standard for how white and black people behave; it’s taking aspects of different cultures while marginalizing the people in those cultures; it’s a complex network of attitudes and policies that keep us from being treated as equal even though those same policies were built in a framework supposed to promote equality.

Racism is bigger than any one person, and if you have never been exposed to its effects that doesn’t mean those effects aren’t there. It just means that your social position insulates you from them. White experience in America is a fundamentally different thing from black experience; it’s not an accusation, or a judgement, it’s a fact. That’s what we mean when we bring up the dreaded ‘white privilege’. The term doesn’t mean that white people get $100,000 a year automatically and their own team of servants; it means that the system we all live under gives you a different experience than it gives me.

If you’re white, you don’t have to be terrified of the police. I do. If you’re white, you don’t have to watch talking heads on TV argue about whether ideology painting you as inherently inferior or sub-human should be allowed in the public square. I do. If you’re white, you don’t have to keep up with a list of code words and symbols that might mean you’re dealing with someone who subscribes to that ideology. I do. I could go on, but there are many MANY different aspects of the black experience that are virtually invisible to white people and are never thought of. That’s the privilege.

Understanding this means decentering yourself and trying to see the same situation from a different point of view. As hard as it can be to grasp, a lot of the problems we’re talking about are literally not about you. They’re about us, and what we go through, and why that is. So, unless I’m specifically referring to something you said or did, please try to check the impulse to defend your words and actions and heart. This isn’t about that.

So once you acknowledge that racism is still an active institution, and put aside your experience to engage with someone else’s, there’s one last thing I’d love to see: empathy. Note I didn’t say pity, or guilt, or even anger at the thing I’m angry about. I’m specifically stating that I would like white people to have more empathy for black people and the things they must go through.

Imagine getting up in the morning and having it reinforced — in so many ways large and small — that this culture doesn’t fully accept you because of your background. When you take a shower, shampoo and conditioner might work differently on your hair; if you’re a woman, finding makeup or skin care products for your skin tone is harder. On the news, the President talks about how crime is ‘out of control’ in the ‘inner cities’ and you know the image he’s conjuring — one of young black men in the streets of Chicago or Detroit or Atlanta shooting each other. The crowd cheers when he says he’s going to ‘take care of it’. Meanwhile, family in New Orleans or southeast Texas or Puerto Rico is still struggling to recover from hurricanes.

At work, you find out you make less than a colleague of another race and you have to wonder if it’s your skillset or your skin color that’s caused that. Throughout the day there are dozens of interactions — with coworkers, service folks, customers and strangers — that might have been peppered with racially-coded comments ranging from innocuous to offensive, but you’re not sure. Instead of talking about it, you decide to let it slide but it still rankles you and you can’t stop thinking about it. After work there’s more news and commentary about your race, mostly from people who are of a different one. The TV shows, movies, books and games you use to have fun or feel better mostly feature people who aren’t like you; on a forum for one of your favorite sci-fi universes, a debate rages on why there needs to be a reason to make a main character someone of your race or else it’s just political correctness being shoved down the collective throat of the community.

Despite all of this, you love your life and you feel lucky to have it. You’re in a stable relationship, you make enough money to live comfortably, you have great friends and so many things you’re excited about. You love the country you were born in, even though there are no authorities you can expect to be friendly or helpful, even though your race hasn’t been treated kindly — let alone equally — by your country in the entirety of its history, even though protests and successes by members of your race are almost always dismissed or rejected or destroyed. You love your country, but you wish your country loved you back, and that your friends understood it doesn’t, it never did, it likely won’t for a long time.

You have a good life, but it’s complicated and painful in ways that most don’t see. And it’s hard to know what to do with that — because illuminating it might just blow it all up. It makes your friends more distant and nervous; it invites hostile and ignorant demands from others; it just makes you feel more alienated, frustrated, sad.

Imagine being that person. Imagine what that’s like. Sit with that feeling; hold it, remember it. Access that feeling the next time a person of color talks to you about race, white people. Treat that person the way you would want to be treated if you felt that way. Can you do that? Because it’s really all I want. Not guilt, or shame, or even an apology; just acknowledgement, perspective, empathy. That’s it.

 
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Posted by on January 10, 2018 in Politics, Pop Culture, Self-Reflection

 

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(Fandom) Further Confusion 2018

Fandom 150Further Confusion 2018 is just around the corner! The first major convention of the year will be held at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center starting this Thursday, January 11th and closing down on Monday, January 15th after five days of furry fun. I really love this con; it’s super close to me, and I get to show so many friends from out of town the best parts of the city! Not only that, but I’m usually on a few panels about writing and/or spirituality where I get to chat a bunch about things that really interest me. Good times all around!

If you’re planning to go to the convention, please let me know — I’d love to meet you! Chances are you can find me bumming around the Dealer’s Den, chilling out in one of the many hang-out spots around the convention center, or attending a boatload of panels (that I’m not on). If you’re interested in attending a panel I’ll be hosting, here are the four I’ll be working with.

Adult Furry Writing (18+ Only)

Saturday, January 13th @ 10:00 PM (Salon V-VI / Marriott)

Writing adult scenes in furry fiction are a bit more complicated than ‘just add sex’. How can you make sure adult themes are woven into stories in ways that not only engage your readers but also enhances the work? I’ll be on this panel with my husband (The Pen Drake) and Kyell Gold for the first time this year to talk about how to handle the more graphic aspects of our fiction.

Developing A Writing Practice

Sunday, January 14th @ 11:00 AM (Almaden / Marriott)

One of the biggest pieces of writing advice for the neophyte is making sure you write on a regular basis. But in an age where so many things compete for our attention, how in the world do we manage that? I’ll go over strategies that have worked for me and answer questions about specific stumbling blocks to the best of my ability along with prolific writer Kyell Gold!

Afrofuturism and Furry

Sunday, January 14th @ 5:00 PM (Guadalupe / Marriott)

Just what IS Afrofuturism and what does it have to do with furry fiction? I’m very excited to offer this panel for the very first time — I’ll explain just what Afrofuturism is, detail its history in brief, and show how the themes, aesthetic and values of the movement are more at home in furry fiction than you think. I’m on this panel solo, so expect a more conversational panel.

And here are a few panels that I think are so cool they need to be promoted!

Titanium Tea XXIX

Friday, January 12th @ 1:00 PM (Los Gatos Suite / Marriott 4th Floor)

Watcher Tigersen has been running this tea-based social at Further Confusion for years now, and it’s always a fun time. He even brews an exclusive tea just for each year, and this meet-up will be no exception! If you’re a tea afficianado and you’d like to meet other furries who love a good cup and a sit-down as much as you do, you should definitely check this out!

Native American Cultures

Friday, January 12th @ 3:00 PM (Almaden / Marriott)

Julzz, Yasuno and Tonya Song are bringing back this panel from last year, exploring various aspects of Native American culture including art, stories, music, philosophy, history and more. It’s really exciting to get more of this kind of panel in furry; more insight into the beliefs of Native Americans is sorely needed so we can approach aspects of it with more care and sensitivity.

Reveille and the Swingin’ Tails

Saturday, January 13th @ 1:00 PM (Second Stage / Marriott)

This is low-key one of the best live performances at Further Confusion, featuring a six-piece band playing jazz, funk and blues! Scheduling conflicts mean I don’t make the concerts as often as I’d like, but I always try to see the Swingin’ Tails if I get the chance. You should too!

Let’s Talk About RAWR: the Furry Residential Writing Workshop

Saturday, January 13th @ 4:30 PM (Guadalupe / Marriott)

Did you know that there is a one-week intensive residential workshop dedicated to helping furry writers refine their craft? WELL THERE IS! Alkani Serval, Kyell Gold and Ryan Campbell will be hosting this panel about RAWR (the Regional Anthropomorphic Writers Retreat) — they’ll be talking about what previous years were like, and what you can do to apply if you’re interested!

Mindfulness and Meditation Workshop

Sunday, January 14th @ 1:00 PM (Santa Clara / Hilton)

Kannik will be hosting this panel all about the benefits of building a regular meditation practice and how it can lead to being more mindful in all aspects of your life! He’s an engaging and down-to-earth teacher who’s been doing this for years. The panel has been wonderfully informative and enriching for years, so if you’re curious about the transformative aspects of meditation and mindfulness I highly recommend spending a bit of time with him on Sunday afternoon!

Unsheathed Live! (18+ Only)

Sunday, January 14th @ 10:00 PM (Guadalupe / Marriott)

Unsheathed began life as one of the very first furry writing podcasts, and it continues on as a live panel at various conventions. It is a BLAST. Last year, Carrizo Kitfox outfitted 3D models for presenters Kyell Gold, K.M. Hirosaki and The Pen Drake for extra hilarity and immersion. Kyell, KM and Pen will discuss what they’ve been reading and writing, then take questions from the audience in a lively, loose event that’s consistently one of the highlights of my con!

So those are the panels I’ll be trying to make this year, but there’s a ton of other stuff to do. In addition to the Dealer’s Den during the day and dances at night, there are charity auctions; a gamer’s lounge for board games, tabletop RPGs and video games; poker tournaments; late-night Jackbox games; and all kinds of meet-ups for furries of all kinds of interests. Around San Jose, there are amazing restaurants, art installations, nightclubs, museums and events as well. FC 2018 is going to be really, really fun — I can’t wait to see some of you there!

 
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Posted by on January 8, 2018 in Furries, Writing

 

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(Fiction Friday) Veniamin Kovalenko: Werebear Detective

Writing 150For Fiction Friday this year, I’d like to play around with a new setting or character every month. Chances are this will settle in to a rotating band of settings that I’ll return to again and again, just to play around with various aspects of writing. One of the things that have been setting me back is a reluctance to just play around, to write for the sheer joy of it. So that’s what I’ll be doing here.

This month I’m going to dig into Veniamin Kovalenko, a character I played in my husband’s Dresden Files game. Veniamin is a Californian of Russian descent (obviously), but with deep ties to the Golden State as well as Alaska. His family’s birthright is the ability to change into a bear pretty much at will, something that serves most of them pretty well. His mother and father own a little hotel in the forests just a little way south of Silicon Valley; other family have installed themselves as park rangers and workers in various state parks.

Veniamin, however, has chosen the path of the private detective to the supernatural creatures in and around the San Francisco Bay. He’s seen too many good monsters do stupid things and meet their end because of it; he wants to protect folks with too much power and too little sense from making bad choices, and make sure ‘regular folks’ aren’t victimized by those they have no defense against if he can help it.

I rarely write in first person because I’m just not good at plugging in to a drastically different voice from my own, so that’s my challenge this month: try on a writing style that’s distinctive and alien.

 

#1: Bearbaiting

San Francisco didn’t even have the decency to be sweltering when that demon from Hell walked through my door. If this were Sacramento, he would have slipped in all covered with flop sweat, dark stains on his shirt where perspiration soaked through, panting and stinking of whatever garbage he could afford from the vending machine on his salary. But the City By The Bay barely cracked 80 in a heat wave, so all I had to announce his presence was the faint whiff of sulphur and subway piss.

He wasn’t an actual demon, but he might as well have been — maybe something worse, like one of those parasites that feasts on souls or a Kardashian. He stood in front of my desk with his hands clutching his hat, his shabby uniform neatly pressed and creased. The six-pointed star caught the little bit of morning light that made it into the room and glinted right into my eye, making me squint. Almost like he was mocking me, he squinted too — at the tumbler of whiskey I had in my hand.

“Isn’t it a little early for that?” He said, frowning at the smell.

“Ain’t it none of your business?” I splashed back the three fingers in the glass, slammed it down, swiped the bottle and refilled it so I could take another sip. “I don’t go to your box outside of Hayward Station and judge you for your life choices.”

The man sighed and looked around the room. I couldn’t lie, my office had seen better days — the couch on one side of the room had been mangled a few nights ago after a particularly epic bender when I blacked out and shifted, and there were claw marks all over the wall and floor there. The trash bins were full of empty alcohol bottles, my desk was buried under empty pizza boxes, and the air was full of stale food, drink, and bear. It hadn’t been a good time these past few weeks, but that was just part of the deal in my line of work. If this prim little asshole had been through what I had, he’d drown his sorrows in extra cheese and Johnnie Walker too.

“Can I help you?” I leaned forward and put my tumbler down. He didn’t look like he wanted to be here, and I sure as hell didn’t want him here. So the sooner we got done with…whatever this was, the better it would be for both of us.

“Oh…uh…” He stopped trying to work out what had happened to the couch and looked back at me. Then he looked down. Then he fiddled with his hat. “I…uh…I hope so.”

Something wasn’t right here. The BART police officer in front of me was a lot of things, but hesitant wasn’t one of them. I tried to clear the fatigue and booze out of my head so I could put my finger on it, but when I did that all I got was a headache. Still, I could tell even then that he looked pretty shaken. Maybe he had seen something. Maybe he was in over his head.

“All right then, Mr. Nunes, sit down and tell me what’s on your mind. Though if it has anything to do with BART I’m afraid I’m not your guy. Still banned for two more months, remember?” I straightened my tie and smiled to take the edge off that last bit. If he was coming to me, he had to be three shades of desperate and it’s not in my nature to be that tough on a desperate man.

“Well…yes.” Nunes sat down across from me and stared down at his stupid hat for a while, gathering his courage. If it weren’t nine in the morning — and he weren’t a police officer — I might have offered him a shot. But he came around eventually. “I might be able to do something about that.”

“Yeah? Why?” It had been ten months since I’d been busted trying to sneak into the BART tunnels, on the trail of some wild fae who had been doing who knows what in there. Nunes was the officer who caught me and, when I couldn’t talk my way out of trouble, got me banned. I had my own car anyway, so it wasn’t too big of a deal, but it was the principle of the thing. It really sticks in my craw when I get punished by the people I’m trying to protect just for doing the right thing. What’s the point of having the law when it doesn’t actually help?

“Because I think you know there’s something in the BART tunnels, and I need you to find out what it is.” It took a lot of effort for him to look me in the eye when he said that, I could tell.

I gave Nunes a good, long look. It really doesn’t do anyone any good to know what’s really out there; it’s more trouble than it’s worth for people like me. Even if you’re just trying to live your life, people get really afraid, and that fear makes them do all kinds of stupid, destructive things. But he clearly saw something that spooked him, enough to come to the last person he should expect help from.

Still, keeping up the cover is important. I leaned back in my chair and shook my head. “I really don’t know what you mean, Officer. I was chasing a lead for a client when I was sniffing around there. Turned out to be a dead end, though. Given all the trouble that came my way the last time, I’m not inclined to go back down there.”

“Please, I…I don’t know what you know, but I know it’s more than I do, OK? Something in those tunnels have been taking the homeless. I don’t know what it’s doing, but…but it’s…” Nunes stopped then, looking down into his lap, clutching his hat. Goddamnit. I was going to have to help this asshole.

I took a deep breath and tried not to let my shoulders slump too much while I grabbed a notepad and pen. “All right, Nunes. Just start at the beginning. Tell me what you saw.”

I fished a (sort of) clean tumbler out of a draw, poured some whiskey into it, and slid the glass towards him. To my surprise, he took it. Then he began to talk.

 

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(Personal) My 2018

Self Improvement 150So now that the dumpster fire that is 2017 has been officially extinguished, it’s time to look ahead towards the bright, shiny new year and plan how to make it better. I’m not going to lie; I’m one of those people who love to think about New Year’s Resolutions — but I’m sure you know that by now. It’s one thing to make public declarations on the Internet for what I’m going to do, but it’s quite a different thing to follow through and hold myself accountable for failures.

I’ll try to do something a little different this year, especially in regard to my writing. While I’ll definitely be aiming for pretty ambitious goals at the start of 2018, I also realize that it’s possible I won’t be able to meet them for some reason. Perhaps family issues will flare up again and I’ll be forced to slog through some difficulty. Maybe something will happen with my day job or my mental health and I’ll need to drop everything to take care of that. Or perhaps shit hits the fan in the United States and survival becomes the overriding focus of our short and brutal existence.

No matter what, the goals I have in mind for the year will serve as a North Star for what I’d like to do. Even if I know I won’t be able to meet them, I’ll still get as close as I can for as much as I’m able. Achieving the goal would be nice, but ultimately it’s not the point. The goals are a means to an end, that end being encouraging behaviors and developing habits that will make a more consistent, more productive writer.

For The Writing Desk, I’m aiming for one hundred posts in 2018. That actually shouldn’t be too hard to manage; if I keep up a regular output of three posts a week through the year, that would put me right around 150 by December. However, I know there’ll be times where I’ll need to take a week or two off to tackle other work — or I’m working on an essay or two that requires extra time and polish. This year, though, I’d like to focus on minimizing those interruptions and communicating in advance when they’re going to happen. Becoming more professional and accountable to myself for what I do is a big thing for me this year, and this little corner of the Internet will be an excellent first step for that.

Another good reason for making sure I’m consistent here is that it trains me to write to deadlines. If I actually want to make a living on this, I’m going to have to be able to produce a certain output on time. I know that at first any polish I’ve got here might suffer, but that’s fine. I can learn how to write about involved or difficult subjects and still be on time through this. There may be a few bumps in the road, but that’s in service to progress.

For the Jackalope Serial Company, I’m aiming to publish 50 ‘episodes’ of serial in 2018. This will be a lot more difficult, since it means I’ll need to make sure I have at least one piece of serialized fiction up on Patreon every week this year. There’s no way around it, I’ll need to make sure I’m working ahead of what I post in order to make this goal, and that’s a very good thing. It means that success will force me to plan ahead and work consistently; there are going to be weeks where I just can’t write, but if I’m diligent I’ll have a backlog to catch me for a bit. I’ll even give myself two weeks this year where I can be ‘off’, and I have a good idea about when I’ll take them. But in order to be a storyteller, I’m going to need to learn how to tell stories. The Jackalope Serial Company will be an excellent proving ground for that.

Finally, I’d like to write and submit ten short stories to various publications this year. One of the best things about 2017 is the sudden expansion of minority voices in the science-fiction/fantasy space. I’d love, more than anything, to become a part of that wave. I hardly expect that any of my work will actually be accepted or published, but it’s well past time that I put myself out there. Writing stories is only one part of the vocation; learning how the industry works and engaging with it as much as you can is a big part that I’ve neglected for far too long.

I fully expect that I’ll be submitting more stories towards the latter half of the year than the former. For the next few months, anyway, I’ll be focusing mostly on The Writing Desk and the Jackalope Serial Company to make sure I’m consistent there. Once I feel more comfortable with my writing routine, I’ll begin to branch out with standalone short stories written for the wider SFF or furry markets.

So, these are my three big goals for 2018: write 100 posts here, write 50 serial chapters, and submit 10 short stories to publications. That’s a LOT of writing, and again — there’s no expectation of making the goal. That’s not really the point here. The point is to push myself further than I have been, to develop a consistent writing practice, and to submit work on a reasonably predictable schedule. Every month, I’ll reflect on my progress on these goals, talk a bit about what’s working and what I still need to focus on, and discuss my game plan for the next month. We’ll see how that goes, but for now, I’m really excited about the chance to ‘earn’ my label.

What are your New Year’s Resolutions, and how do you plan on meeting them? Let me know!

 

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(Personal) My 2017

Self Improvement 150Happy New Year! Congratulations to all of us for making it through 2017 with our sanity mostly intact. It was a really rough year, wasn’t it? I don’t know about you, but just when I thought I was getting a handle on things, something else would come along and knock me off my feet. There was a marathon of awfulness from the current presidential administration, starting with lies about the size of its inauguration and ending with lies about winning the War on Christmas. In between there were unprecedented wars of words with former allies and aides, the media, protesters and members of Congress; over 90 days on a golf course; shockingly provocative statements made on Twitter; leaks and firings from the White House; a rise in racist and totalitarian rhetoric in the public square; and a sustained assault on equal rights for women, minorities, Americans with disabilities; access to health insurance for more Americans; environmental and corporate deregulation; tax cuts for the wealthy; disastrous foreign policy; and a massive grass-roots resistance fighting against all of it for the entire year.

My therapist said that she had never seen so many people come in for psychological services precisely because of our political situation, but this is where we are as a nation. So many of us feel threatened by our own fellow citizens that it’s affecting our mental health. We fear for our friends and family, our autonomy, and our lives. We live in a world that feels hostile, cruel and crazy. To say this year has been a shock is an understatement.

Personally, this has been compounded by derailments in my plans for secondary education, my family situation, my day job, my writing, and my mental health routine. I dropped out of college (again) due to the sudden loss of my sister, and I’ve been struggling with the consequences of that for my family ever since. My finances have been wiped out pretty much entirely, which means that I’ll need to make some changes in my lifestyle and stay the course with an unsatisfying job (at least for the time being) in order to recover. Familial obligations, emergencies, and continued depression has made it almost impossible to build a consistent writing practice. The stress and anxiety has overwhelmed my coping strategy, meaning several depressive episodes, anxiety attacks, and a general struggle with anger and despair over the year.

2017 sucked. A lot. My sister Teneka died of a drug overdose in late April, leaving behind four children and an elderly mother who can’t take care of herself. Knowing Teneka struggled with many of the same mental health issues I did — Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder, for example — highlighted just how lucky I am to have a job that allows me the chance to address those issues at a reasonably low cost. I also have a support network that understands and empathizes with that struggle, where she didn’t. Instead she tried to raise a son with special needs and an impossibly hostile mother all on her own, while two of her children were taken from her and placed in foster care. Trapped by her mental illnesses, struggling to do what was extremely difficult at the best of times, caring for a mother who emotionally abused her — it’s no wonder to me that she turned to drugs as an escape. Where else could she go?

I learned about all of this from February to April, and the week in Baltimore as she died was the hardest week I’ve ever spent. But I got to see my two oldest nephews for the first time, gained a brother-in-law who is passionate, dedicated, and wild, and reconnected with my family after over a decade of estrangement. I’ve gained a measure of closure with my mother, even though I continue to struggle with finding a way to care for her that doesn’t involve an emergency cropping up at least once a month. Her finances are beyond repair, but I only came to that decision after depleting my own.

My mother has been difficult ever since coming back from Baltimore. Our time together was surprisingly positive. She met Ryan as my husband, and it turns out she really liked him — she still asks about him. And I thought that I had been able to speak to her in a way she understood and short-circuited a lot of the tantrums she tends to throw when things don’t go her way. She can be astonishingly mean when she’s unhappy or surprised. However, as the months dragged on and she caused scramble after scramble when refusing to do something we had agreed on a few days before, it became clear that she hasn’t really changed and she’s still the same self-absorbed, stubborn person she was when I left home.

Dealing with my mother and the loss of my sister took up most of my energy throughout the year, and I spent a great deal of 2017 in a pretty bad headspace. Frustration, anger, grief and guilt have been swirling within me with no good outlet or expression for it. I’ve become resentful of the stress and lost time and money Mom has demanded without thanks or any note of appreciation. Only recently, when other members of my extended family became involved, have I felt a measure of relief and understanding about how difficult this situation has been.

That anxiety has bled over into every other area of my life. I haven’t been writing consistently at all; I’ve been short with a lot of “problem” colleagues at work; I’ve become less talkative online and flighty or confrontational. My anxiety and depression have blown right past my coping mechanisms this year, and it’s affecting my ability to work and be mindful with my relationships. I haven’t really liked the person I’ve become over this past year — even understanding how it happened.

The other major thing that happened this year was spending two weeks in Belgium for work training. It was the very first time I had been to Europe, and it was a fascinating, enriching experience. Two weeks was just enough to get a sense of how people live in the Flemish part of Belgium and I have to say I rather liked it. Things are so much more laidback there, but in a way that actually promotes productivity. Instead of trying to do a million things at one time, there seems to be more of an effort to allow people to focus on one thing and manage that as well as possible. Expertise, built through considerable time and effort, matters.

It’s something that I’ve been struck by and have been trying to incorporate into my life ever since. I’ve attempted to put more energy into focus and deliberate practice, knowing that while it might mean I work more slowly I can also learn and grow a bit more quickly. This has been (not-so-)surprisingly difficult with my ADHD, but I get that. It’s a process, and I’ll need to develop mine a bit differently in order to make it work.

However, learning more about the new ‘flagship’ product at my company seriously tanked my morale. Our company was purchased by a holding company and merged with a European one in a somewhat similar space, but we got the ‘short end’ of the deal. Europe had the control, and it became clear that they weren’t interested in working with their American colleagues on how to support the product; they had no understanding of American business culture and were openly dismissive of their stereotypes of it; and the product itself was a shambles, but the only thing we were allowed to sell in the United States. It convinced me that the place I work for doesn’t really have a future, and I should probably prepare to leave sooner rather than later.

My attitude has cooled somewhat, and I’m content to stick around for a little bit while I build up my technical skills to make a proper run at a new job in 2018. But knowing that I was ‘stuck’ in a work environment that triggered my anxiety pretty fiercely (because I felt like I was set up to fail at my job with little to no recourse) because my finances are in pretty bad shape was not a great feeling and became a major contribution to my overall levels of stress.

As difficult as this past year has been, I have to say that I’ve also grown so much closer to so many people over the year, even as I’ve shrunken my social circle a bit. My love for Ryan has deepened further still, and the life we’ve built together has been an anchor allowing me to maintain some sense of perspective. All of the people who have been kind and patient and compassionate towards me have helped so much more than they know. So many days this year have been spent feeling hopeless, nihilistic, doomed. Those small kindnesses, those moments of connection, have been essential for carrying me through those times. I can’t thank all of you enough.

I went into 2017 expecting it to be hard. I knew that the incoming President would be no friend of mine and I would need to prepare for a grinding political resistance against the worst abuses of power and trust. I knew that we would need to band together as a community in order to protect one another and help each other survive. But I had no idea how much of an emotional toll it would take, turning to a friend to find out a fundamental disagreement meant I would need to advocate for my rights and perspective. I had no idea dealing with my family would be so exhausting and fruitless. I had no idea that I would have to give up my dream of becoming a psychologist for the time being and find other, more immediate ways to help people.

Through it all, though, I’ve learned so much about myself. I’m stronger than I thought I was. I have learned the value of discomfort and how to push through it. I have rededicated myself to compassion and equanimity. And I know who’s in the trenches with me. My sense of self (and self-worth) have deepened, and I feel ready for the uncertain times I face in 2018.

 
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Posted by on January 2, 2018 in mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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Kwanzaa, Day 7: Imani (Faith)

Myth 150Habari gani, brothers and sisters? Happy New Year!

I’m pretty sure most of us (myself included) are spending the final day of Kwanzaa somewhat sleep-deprived and hungover, so I’ll speak quietly and wish you the tastiest of greasy breakfasts and a quick recovery so you can start 2018 getting your shit handled. No matter how you woke up today — groaning and regretful, or clear-eyed and ready — I have faith in you and your ability for greatness. You can do whatever you set your minds to!

Today’s principle is Imani, or Faith. Faith is a tricky concept to talk about because it’s so nebulous; it means something very specific to our religious fam, while it might mean something entirely different (or nothing at all) to the rest of us. If you’re Christian or Muslim, faith means belief in a higher power as well as the righteousness of the rules as they have been set down in holy texts. The rules are often a constant source of confusion and conflict for us, though — so many of us in the diaspora are excluded by them, and our personal experience might tie the worst memories to the way religion has been used to drive a wedge between us. If you’re like me, Christian faith is most likely one of the most destructive influences in your life.

It can be hard to reconcile our experience with the positive aspects of faith, especially when the actions of the faithful can be so hurtful. It can be hard to have faith when you’ve seen what it does to people. The idea of putting your faith in something larger than yourself can be tremendously scary, a fool’s errand that only leads to the worst outcomes.

But here’s the thing: faith is necessary to push our ideals forward. If you’re religious, putting your faith in God means putting your faith in Their creation. The people all around you are made in God’s own image, which means that divinity exists in each and every one of us. Recognizing and respecting that divinity is one of the most important ways we can act on our faith — every interaction we have with someone else is another opportunity to connect to the divine spark within our fellow human beings, and the work of Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed pointed us to doing just that. It can be exceedingly difficult to find the divine righteousness in some people, but faith isn’t easy. Even with the understanding that God is present in all of us, having faith that we can connect to it in another is something that escapes us too often.

For me, personally, these past couple of years has largely destroyed my faith in humanity as essentially good. It’s hard to believe that we are basically kind and wise creatures when we seem so hell-bent on our own division and destruction. Over the past year, we’ve thrown away our standards for truth and compromise just so we can cater to our darkest impulses. We’ve begun to question ideas that were settled decades ago, and fostered an environment where knowledge and morality aren’t concrete, tangible things — they’re just details that can be swatted aside for something that feels better. Instead of admitting our ignorance and mistakes, we’ve become ruinously arrogant even in the face of direct contradiction. Our collective id has crowded out our sense of perspective; the only thing that matters is our personal gratification at this point.

It’s hard to see, especially when there are so many real problems that we refuse to face. We’re pushing our environment to the brink of collapse even though we’ve had more than fifty years to deal with climate change; we’re astonishingly willing to entertain fascist and totalitarian ideas in our political process, especially if it means a win for ‘our side’; we’ve stopped listening to one another for so long we can’t even understand each other any more; we don’t think of those less fortunate than us as anything but a drain on our society. At the precise time we should be shaking off the worst excesses of our civilization for the continued survival of our species, we seem to be choosing a bender of oblivion, drunk on fossil fuels and anti-social capitalism.

I’ve struggled to push through this year with any sense of purpose. What’s the point of anything if we’re so willing to destroy ourselves if it doesn’t mean making hard changes to our lifestyle and understanding? It’s been impossible to shake the feeling that we’re just doomed and that the world has effectively ended; we just don’t know when or how.

Faith helps so much to combat this narrative in my head. If I believe in anything, it’s the strength, resilience and ingenuity of my fellow human beings. We’ve had the chance to control the way things change in our future, but we’ve missed it for the most part. It’s up to us NOW to take quick and decisive action to make sure our future is the best we can make it; that’s going to require us to put our faith in each other and our own better natures.

As a Buddhist, this means putting my faith in the idea of enlightenment for all beings. We all have the capability of expressing our unique Buddha-nature for the benefit of all humanity. Your expression may be closely following the teachings and attitudes of Jesus Christ; or the wisdom of the prophet Muhammed; or the ancient, living Mosaic Law. It might be communing with the seasonal magic of the natural world, or following a humanist philosophy, or simply being who you are to the best of your ability. There is no one thing that means nirvana; our own paths take us to our innate epiphany.

My faith rests in the journey that all of us are taking to be better people. I have to believe that this journey will find us working together to take care of each other over time, and that we will come to celebrate and respect our differences while realizing we’re so much more similar than we thought. My faith means looking for the Buddha in every person I meet and finding ways to connect with them. It means hoping the best for everyone while not expecting everyone is at their best.

In order to make the most of the new year and to fully embrace the Nguzo Saba, I have to embrace the faith that we can turn this around. I must have faith in my ability to live up to my principles, no matter how hard it might be. I must trust in you. And I do.

Let’s make 2018 a great year. I have faith that it will be, because I’ll be trying every day to make it so.

 
 

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Kwanzaa, Day 6: Kuumba (Creativity)

Myth 150Habari gani, brothers and sisters?

Today is the last day of 2017, and to say it’s been an interesting year is a small understatement. But we’ve made it! We’re about to enter 2018, a year full of new possibilities and problems that will require us to be united, self-aware, diligent, cooperative, and purposeful to solve. The issues we face next year will be a lot of the same old stuff — but cloaked in different wrappers that might be hard to see through. I’m confident, though, that we’ll not only survive the next year, but thrive. We are strong, adaptable people. A big reason for this is my favorite principle of the Nguzo Saba — Kuumba, or Creativity.

Africa is a land rich in stories. From the folk tales handed down verbally through generations of families, to the poems, songs, novels and other stories presented through the kaleidoscope of the diaspora experience, we’ve contributed much to humanity’s creative expression. So many things that have become the bedrock of the American pop art culture find their roots within us, from jazz to dance to rock and roll to historical fiction to genre fiction to science. Our ingenuity and ability to thrive despite great difficulty and limitations is one of our best traits, and I’m excited to honor the work our ancestors put in to make creativity such a huge part of our cultural heritage.

As a writer, I come from a long line of African-Americans who have done amazing work providing a vital perspective on our cultural experience. James Baldwin seamlessly blended his thoughts on being a black man in America through both novels and essays, not only discussing issues of race, but of the complexities of being gay and bisexual; Langston Hughes was one of the foremost names in the Harlem Renaissance, along with Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen and Wallace Thurman; Ralph Ellison spoke about how both external and internal cultural pressure can render a person invisible in Invisible Man; Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney opened the doors of science fiction and fantasy, and Tananarive Due, N.K. Jemisin, Nalo Hopkinson, Nnedi Okorafor, Daniel Jose Older and Terrence Wiggins all keep up the work of carving out a space for black people there. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ava DuVernay, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Christopher Priest, Dwayne McDuffie, Evan Narcisse, and so, SO MANY others have all contributed outstanding work to the creative American canon. The list really is too long to name properly.

And that’s just talking about writing. The Black American contribution to popular music is even longer, going back to the old spirituals of the slavery-era South and coming through today with the dominance of rap and hip-hop on the charts today. We’ve made great art, sculptures, jewelry, dances, claimed new media and technology as forms of self-expression with Vine, Instagram, Snapchat and other platforms; we’ve put creative energy into protest as well, thinking of new ways to engage with the problems plaguing the black community. Black Twitter, which is one of my absolute favorite things ever, is a giant messy digital town square where we boost calls for help or action; talk about music, movies, TV and books; highlight issues of representation in media and entertainment; and clap back on folks messing with us and ours in hilarious ways.

Our vast cultural heritage of creativity is one of our best features. We can capture the complicated, difficult feeling of our experience in powerfully moving works through whatever medium we choose. We inspire hope and change through song and story; we make sure our collective struggle is remembered through the essays and personal writing of those who’ve lived through it. In our hearts, there is wit and passion and the unwavering strength of our birthright. As long as we tap into that, there’s always a way out of the thicket.

We’ve taken such great strides with entertainment over the past couple of years, and 2018 is looking to be even more amazing. Moonlight, a film about an inner-city black man struggling with his sexual orientation, won the Best Picture Oscar this year with a black director, screenwriter, and actors — it was based on a semi-autobiographical story from a gay black man. On TV, black men won Best Leading Actor Emmys in the Drama, Comedy AND Limited Series/Movie categories while Blackish, Queen Sugar, and Empire made sure a wide variety of black characters were seen on screen. Black people killed it in comics this year while the industry at large took a number of questionable choices through their summer events — but it didn’t stop Ta-Nehisi Coates, David Walker, Christopher Priest, Roxane Gay, and others from turning in amazing work. In 2018, Black Panther is set to hit the big time in the MCU while Miles Morales is headlining his own animated movie.

I don’t think there’s ever been a better time for black creativity. The Internet has given us an amazing platform to connect and amplify each other’s work, and so many formerly isolated pockets are learning to come back into the community with unique experiences and perspectives. Personally, learning about Afrofuturism has been a revelation and my own personal vehicle for coming back to my roots. Telling solarpunk, urban fantasy, and anthro-animal stories is a powerful way for me to make sense of my history, identity, and feelings about where we are as a culture, as a country, as human beings. I’m looking forward to using my voice and refining my craft next year, fully living the principle of Kuumba.

There are few places where black excellence is more evident than in our creative endeavors. If possible, I invite you to think about all of your favorite stories, movies, TV, songs, art, poetry and non-fiction; think about the people of color who have had a hand in them. If you’re curious about what person-of-color-centered creative work to dive into, let me know a medium and/or genre, and give me a few examples of your own personal favorites. I’d be more than glad to recommend something to you.

Happy New Year, all of you. See you in 2018!

 

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