This week while the world was burning, I exercised my shameful tendency to avoid conflict. Glued to the TV, I watched with horror as violent hordes attempted to disrupt Congress from validating the electoral vote, and watched as the damaging aftermath of their efforts unfolded. From my cocoon, I named what I was watching on TV: the manifestation of racism. Why didn’t I instead ask myself the following questions:
- How am I complicit?
- What am I willing to exist in indefinite, continued discomfort around or with in my life?
- What’s stopping me from acting?
***Instead, I went about feverishly preparing for classes and the upcoming semester. I bought new pillows for my couch, sprucing it up for classes. I thought I might lose it if I had to look at the brown couch any longer. I watched some documentaries on Netflix in my quest for self-improvement and knowledge. When I found myself watching the Netflix Documentary “Less is Now” immediately after I had just bought $200 worth of new pillows online, I asked, “Why did I buy them?”
To make me happy? To celebrate the transition from the horrors of 2020?
Or just to think about something other than what was happening in Washington and what it had to do with me? How I would participate actively in the hard work that lies ahead to correct our self-destructive path as a nation?
I picked up the remote and hit pause, turned on my laptop and cancelled three quarters of the pillows I’d bought, tried to cancel the teal swivel desk chair I’d thrown in at the checkout terminal. No such luck. I called them but was told, “That order is already being prepared at the warehouse.”
My husband would be laughing at me. He was so indulgent of my occasional binging on HGTV shows, but would always say, “Why do they have so many pillows? Where will they sit?” I washed the original pillow covers, too, so the brown couch looks almost like she just came down to meet her prom date.
***Psst! Hey Els, I asked me a question!
How am I complicit?
- I’m complicit by distracting myself with pillows on my couch while white supremacists incited by the President of the United States waved confederate flags in the Capitol building.
- I’m complicit in consumerism which fuels the national hunger for more at the expense of our being present and mindful. (see Less is Now)
- I’m complicit in the insidious underbelly of my purchase paid for through the multi-generational accrual of ill-gotten gains. Benefit from generations of privilege stemming from rules, laws about banking, education, criminal justice, environmental justice always supporting “people like me.” About which I have remained silent.
Head in the sand is an option not afforded our BIPOC colleagues, family, friends or anyone who has been on the receiving end of the hatred we all witnessed on our screens this week. This Politico article entitled “Wake Up, America. This is Who We Are” points us in the right direction.
Today I was guided to another article by a community where we gathered to process the events of this week; where the thoughtful sherpas cued us with the questions above. At the time, I didn’t have any idea I would write about this. The conversation just percolated and inserted itself into this now-recognizably insipid blog. I share here not to flagellate myself for bad writing, but to underscore the point that this “pillow talk” is what I’ve been thinking about (as someone I consider to be a thoughtful person) rather than thinking about the meaning of the week’s events. And what a “normal” democrat can do. AKA garden variety complicity.
***Instead I try to imagine what my husband would be thinking about my purge of his extensive collection of actor biographies and autobiographies. I reached out to his alma mater after perusing their website and finding two library funds on their gifts page. I gave a small monetary gift to the library, asked if they would be interested in the books. I waited. “We’d need to see a list of the books to see if we already them in our circulation.” The task was what I needed to get this project moving. So after setting up the new pillows, I ran through the books, adding them to an excel sheet – they numbered 68 and that was just what I could fill in the three boxes I could find. There are at least another 3 boxes I would also add.
***Els! Pay Attention! On to the next question:
What am I willing to exist in indefinite, continued discomfort around or with in my life?
If you’re like me, you are confused by this question. That’s because you are reading the word discomfort and find it in direct opposition to the concept of willingness. Discomfort is what we avoid, rather than embrace as a condition of our evolution as a human being, or a consequence of shedding our white fragility. So read it again and emphasize willingness in the context of contribution. Answers might include:
- I don’t know how to have the conversation about this. I think (especially as a teacher/manager/over-60 educated/Type A/white woman) that I need to know how the conversation will resolve. I’m worried about my tendency to perfectionism. How will I begin the conversation without knowing the resolution? The path through the conversation may get messy. That is a discomfort that I am willing to live with. Here’s a hint. Another word for the way through difficult problem solving is called “collaboration.” We do it every day as theatre artists. We don’t know anything about where the next best design or organizational idea will come from, but we’re receptive to it. Just as we’re training our students to be receptive to new ideas and be flexible. Our philosophy of “no dumb ideas” and “preventing harm” is how we will dissect these difficult conversations, too.
- I am willing to live with the discomfort of speaking out as a bystander. Shedding my fear of retaliation or exile.
- I am willing to live with the discomforting knowledge that change happens. Out of bad events often comes the most personal growth. These are “survivable events,” whether they be…
- …Familial – where speaking out about politics may be extremely risky to relationships with family members outside of your ideological bubble. These harms and subsequent rifts may be healed as long as we are able to continue to speak “in draft” and with frankness and empathy to everyone in the conversation. This is not to say that these conversations and schisms aren’t potentially painful.
- Professional – as our institutions make choices to improve Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, some of the previously privileged white workers may find our positions being reexamined.
And Sunday morning, as I chatted with my college buds about consequential things like the murder of crows feet that got worse when we smiled, or how my current hairstyle evokes Marian the Librarian….
***Time to answer the most significant question, Els…
What’s stopping me from acting?
- Fear of backlash in social media.
- Worry about white friends or family saying “you’re overreacting” or “this has nothing to do with us” in other words, fear of estrangement or loss.
- Lack of confidence for big messy conversations about racism, structural, or in discussion of this week’s events, deeply rooted and deeply visible racism. Will I ever be good enough at having these conversations?
Personal decisions have led me to adopt a minimalist approach to stuff and diet in the New Year. This comes with a complimentary serving of the concept of enoughness. Both in terms of consumerism and the perfectionism alluded to above. As a society we won’t come to happiness through the accumulation of more things, any more than we will from using shopping to avoid thinking about the essential and fundamentally racist rift we are in the middle of. Yes, we will stumble in our efforts to talk about these painful rifts but we must.
and Complicity. Here’s to surviving another week of 2021. Pillows, books and all. And if you still needed an example of how intrusive social media is in our lives, please note that the heading photo of the Politico article portrays the chair and pillows I bought with a sale on the pillows I cancelled while watching the doc on minimalism. If you are a baseball fan, hit me up. I may have the largest collection of Red Sox books this side of the Rockies.