Exposure therapy

(I’m not in the mood to do much editing of this, so I apologize for the randomness and any grammatical offenses I may have committed.)

When I returned to NY at the end of February, my temporary corporate housing was on John Street, right near the Seaport. The relocation company had asked me what area I wanted to be in, and I remember telling them “I don’t want to be west of Broadway”. You see, I still hadn’t come to terms with that place, and I wasn’t ready to be around whatever it had grown to be.

I never walked over that way while I was living there, even though my office was located just a few blocks away.

A few months into my time here, when I had to walk to that side of town to get on the PATH train, I found myself not quite ready to be there. The new “F you” tower, as I like to call it, our ostentatious response to the world, is now complete and serves as a centering point, but not the one I remember. I am still disoriented when I go there. Nothing is where it was before I left, and I am unsettled by the things that are familiar, yet not.

In behavioral psychology there is a concept of dealing with phobias called “exposure therapy” (maybe that’s what it’s called; maybe that’s not exactly right…did I mention that I am not in the mood to do a good job with this post?). Basically, the idea is to give exposure to the thing that the person fears on a gradual basis. So someone who is afraid of dogs might look at a picture of a dog, then a video, then be in the same room as a dog, then come closer to the dog, etc until they can be in the immediate presence of a dog without having a panic attack.

On the day I walked to the PATH train, it struck me that I have had 15 years of not having to go near this place. I think I may have gone once, in the spring of 2002 when visiting with friends (we were staying at a hotel near the World Financial Center), but although I’ve visited NY multiple times since, I never had any desire to go near that mess. It was hard for me to even go into Century 21 to shop…again, disoriented. This tower does not stand where those towers did. Everything is a little bit off, and all I feel when I am there is an unsettled kind of anxiety.

Do I need exposure therapy? Will I ever go visit the memorial itself, search for the few names that I recognize, let myself be in that place? I don’t know. I thought for a minute that today would have been a good day to go, only because the risk of stupid and trite tourists might be slightly lower than usual…but at the same time, it’s not my place to be there today, on someone else’s sacred burial ground.

My writing here doesn’t make sense, and yet I am going to let it stand…because none of it makes sense, and I still haven’t come to terms with it, and although I am beyond overjoyed to be back in this city that I love, there is a piece of its history (and the aftermath) that I was not a part of, and need to figure out my place in relation to that narrative.

I haven’t had time to be desensitized to the military presence in Grand Central Station, or to the random bag check stations as I enter the subway. I don’t know the stories of each of the people I pass as I go about my day, or what their experience of that day has been. What I do know is that they do have stories…so many stories.

Living in Grand Rapids, I was not unaware of the subsequent untimely deaths of many first responders. It was only a few years ago that a friend had to bury her husband due to asbestos-related cancer that the doctors finally admitted was related to the air he breathed that day (You can read his story here, although please be aware that it is quite graphic and could be triggering).

But I am here now, and need to find my way through the rubble of a history that I was and was not a part of, and still am and am not a part of. The “F you” tower stands, and, good capitalists that we are, a pretentious high-end shopping center, shiny and clean and new, is emerging.

Maybe by next year, I will have made some sense of it all. Or maybe not. I guess the thing about “the new normal” is that it really isn’t normal at all, and never can be.

 

 

Bad theology

“You’re not where you need to be.”

I have heard this phrase far too many times in the past two months. The words are being spoken in a work setting, so clearly theology has absolutely nothing to do with the issue at hand. So why the weird title to this post?

(Besides the obvious, which is that I’m weird in general…but I digress…)

I should also say that I feel like I probably should not even be talking about the situation publicly, not even in veiled terms. But I also suspect that by now, there is almost nothing I can do to affect the ultimate outcome here. Although I’ve far from given up (in fact, I have been working really hard on trying to give myself credit for how well I have been persevering in the situation), everything I see and read and hear tells me that it’s highly unlikely that I will be able to come back from this. Which is a shame, because in spite of the situation, I really, REALLY love the actual work. And it’s certainly no secret that I gladly drank that blue Kool-Aid long ago.

So about that phrase.

It’s being used in a diagnostic sense, a warning, so to speak, that I am not okay and that I need to fix what is broken, and quickly. On a surface level, I fundamentally disagree with this as well, but my opinion about where I “should” be in terms of mastery of my role does not match theirs…and mine is not the opinion that matters in this situation.

But here’s the thing. Setting aside the actual situation, I also reject the message in a much broader sense. I believe that everything happens for a reason. I believe that I am exactly where I need to be.

I prayed for years that I would be able to come home. This move happened…but it didn’t just “happen” – I pursued it repeatedly. I am certain with every fiber in my being that God brought me here.

I. am. where. I. need. to. be.

To say otherwise…well, that’s just bad theology.

Whether some people believe that I am “where I need to be” in a tangible or a professional sense, and no matter how uncertain and potentially frightening the immediate future may be, I am here. I’m not going anywhere.

I’m where I need to be. I’m in God’s hands. And after all is said and done, that’s the one thing that really matters.

 

Church shopping

(I am posting from the app for the first time. If it turns out well, perhaps I will finally start blogging more…because NYC = so. much. blog fodder.)

So I am a few months into this adventure of finally being HOME. Every inch of my being is overjoyed to be home. Okay, slight lie-my knees and feet hate my guts, but they can deal.

One of the major things that made Grand Rapids never quite feel like “home” was the fact that I was so far left of the mainstream. And yet, I was-and am-still part of the Body of Christ.

(If you are reading this and are not a Christian, trust me when I say that the hardest thing about being a Christian is…other Christians. Particularly the variety that you have to apologize for and distance yourself from on a regular basis.)

I know that I need to find a new church. I need to put roots down, and it’s a natural way to rebuild some of the community that I’ve lost. And this is New York-I have choices.

While I despise the idea of going about the church hunt with such a consumer mentality, the fact is that I have certain criteria.

A focus on social justice is essential. A church full of pacifists would definitely be a plus.

Because I don’t want to be surrounded by people who are still arguing about this, and because I don’t want to have to be afraid of the reaction I will get when I utter the words, “My friend and his husband…”, I also hope to find a church that is “open and affirming” (translation: they don’t hate The Gays).

And then there’s the race thing. I want a church that honors diversity, but that also wrestles with the baggage of racism in a significant way. This may prove to be the most difficult challenge I will face in my search.

I don’t have a problem with an “all-black” church, but I also don’t know if I have the right to choose that solely for my own benefit.

The church I visited today was small-about sixty people in attendance. I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. The congregation, however, was almost exclusively black, while the lead pastor (Priest? It was Episcopalian, another factor that did not win me over) was white. And blonde. And young. The choir director was white, and one of the other two pastor-type people (again, not my denomination,  v. confused) was white.

I am fully prepared for people to tell me that I am making too much of it, but the leadership, the “face” of a church, matters. I couldn’t very well walk up to the pastor on the way out, shake her hand, and ask,  “So how do you build accountability towards people of color into your ministry?”

I mean, I guess I *could*, but…

I have so many thoughts about church in black and white, about being diverse as opposed to being intentionally anti-racist. I know that I had something unique at Madison. But for a church here to become my church home, this needs to be a part of the equation.

Stay tuned…

Resisting arrest

It was maybe ten years ago that I was in my apartment complex’s pool with a friend’s young daughter. She was not a good swimmer at all, and was reluctant to go into the deeper end of the pool without my help. At one point, I can’t remember exactly what we were doing, (I do have a habit, even to this day, of letting kids use my back as a surfboard in the pool. Note to self: just because you’re in the water does NOT mean it is not going to hurt like a @%# later.) but whatever we were doing, she was either on my back or on my shoulders. We crossed over the point between the shallow and the deep end, and in her panic, she was holding on to me more and more tightly, pushing me down underneath the water.

With my head under the water, I could not explain to her that she needed to let go so that I could get my footing and thereby get us both to safety. I have very little understanding of fear of water, having spent my summers swimming in my grandmother’s backyard pool since before I could remember, but I can understand that it must be terrifying. Her panic was palpable, and yet, in order for me to regain control of the situation, I had to wrest her hands away from my grasp.

It was probably a mere 15 seconds, and I don’t really think that we were ever in any serious danger, but it frightened me nonetheless.

My friend’s daughter was like any other human. When faced with an immediate threat, real or perceived, her mind and body reacted, and her only instinct was to stay alive. It’s an instinct all of us have. It’s what keeps people going in the face of almost impossible odds…it’s why we refer to people with cancer as “fighting bravely”…it’s what makes suicide more difficult than people who haven’t been in that place can imagine. We are human, and our instinct is to stay alive.

Which is why I am so, so tired of people saying, “well, if _______” (insert police brutality victim of the week here) “hadn’t been resisting arrest, they wouldn’t have had these problems”.

These words are usually spoken by people who, even if they were in an encounter with the police because they themselves had broken the law, would never have to experience the abject terror that people of color – whether they have or have not done anything wrong – face every time they have an encounter with the cops.

As a white woman, being stopped by the police is an annoyance at best, albeit triggering in terms of my unresolved crap with authority figures. However, I can think of very few situations in which a random (or not-so-random) police stop would leave me fearing for my life.

I don’t know what it feels like to be a person of color in this country. I don’t know what it is to feel some unidentifiable combination of anger and terror at the mere sight of someone in law enforcement. And because I don’t know what that feels like, I am in no position to say what I would or would not do in that situation.

If you know anything about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), you know that it can lead to a state of constant fight-or-flight hyper-alertness. I imagine that living with the trauma of so many difficult encounters with police over time, either in one’s own life or as a witness to this violence, might lead someone to act unpredictably in the face of this threat. It’s not even accurate to say that this is a “perceived” threat, because for too many black and brown Americans, this is a reality borne by experience after experience after experience.

When my friend’s daughter was pushing down on me in that pool, pushing me further into the water, she was not trying to “resist” my instructions, or my efforts to contain her. She was, rather, trying to resist drowning, to somehow keep herself from the threat she was facing. That threat was very real to her in that moment, and so she thrashed and fought back against my efforts to free her hands from my shoulders and flailed and shouted.

She thought she was in immediate danger of dying, and her body reacted. She did what humans do. She fought for her life.

So now imagine that you are facing an immediate threat. Perhaps you are angry, and you don’t watch your words as closely as you should. Like a child talking back to a parent (unsettling image, but the power structure is set up in such a way that I’m often reminded of the children’s book Matilda: “I’m smart, you’re dumb; I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”), you open your mouth, or you move in the wrong direction, and you are suddenly and painfully aware that you have provoked the rage of this authority figure, and you may very well be killed.

Or maybe it’s a case of mistaken identity, and yet you are taken to a police station and repeatedly sodomized and beaten…or maybe you simply grew up in the shadow of incidents like these, both the larger cases that are publicized in the news as well as the ongoing narrative in your own community of confrontations large and small.

If you don’t know what it’s like to live in that world, then you ought not speak of “resisting arrest”.

What they are resisting is death. What they are fighting against is the generations of brutality and fear that are seared into the flesh of this nation’s history. However they are reacting, it is all they can do in that moment. When you have a police officer’s knee in your back, or his gun to your head, it is not the time for calm; it’s the time to figure out how to stay alive.

If you resist, they may kill you. If you don’t resist, they still may kill you. And the definition of “resisting” is ever-broadening and not easily defined. And if you are a young black or brown man in this country, you don’t stand a chance against these changing definitions. You certainly do not have the luxury of trying to guess whether this is the day you will die at the hands of the officer who is approaching you.

They aren’t resisting arrest. They are trying to stay alive.

And they are doing this because this is what humans do.

What if everything you’ve ever been told is wrong?

The churning I am experiencing means that everything I have to say will not fit neatly into a single blog entry. But let me start by saying this:

It’s not about what you think it’s about. Or rather, it’s not that simple. If nothing else, remember that. There is so much going on beneath the surface.

I have so much to say and it pains me so much to say it and it is going to take me a while. But let’s start with this phrase: “Implicit Bias”.

Got a minute? Take one of these tests. Or a few of them. Then ask yourself how you came to believe the things that you believe. The things that you don’t even *know* you believe.

This mess we’re in came from somewhere. We want to believe that we woke up one day with our enlightened, post-racial selves and that we are not carrying the baggage of our nation’s history. And why can’t people just get over it?
A poem by June Jordan, called “Jim Crow: The Sequel” is haunting me these days. It was written roughly in the Clinton era, and I think I came across it in an issue of Essence magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

But for two hundred years this crazy
land the law and the bullets behind the law
continued to affirm the gospel of
God-given White supremacy.
For two hundred years the law and the
bullets behind the law, and the money and
the politics behind the bullets behind the
law affirmed the gospel of
God-given White supremacy/
God-given male-White supremacy.

And neither the Emancipation Proclamation
nor the Civil War nor one constitutional
amendment after another nor one Civil Rights
legislation after another could bring about a
yielding of the followers of that gospel
to the beauty of our human face.

I know that the phrase “white supremacy” will upset some people, but please know that I am not talking about someone with a Klan hood in their closet. In fact, I am not talking about individuals at all. And I think that before I can go further, I will need to define a few things, will need to explain why I label myself a “recovering racist”. As disorganized as my rants may be, I would be so grateful if some of you would be willing to see through that and to join me as I continue to wrestle with these issues.