Thursday, June 04, 2020

the toll of chronic uncertainty

On Friday night, I scrolled through a feed of burning cop cars, protesters in cloth masks, and cops in riot gear. On Sunday morning, I looked at pictures AK texted me from the park: Dash next to a glassy green pond. Trees stooped to touch their branches to the water.

I stayed home to catch up on work, which meant writing this blog post about my org's work in the context of police violence. (Official Organizational Statements declaring solidarity with Black people have become a thing in the past few days, which is part of what makes this time--this violence, this uprising--feel like a tipping point, like the moment homophobia finally became an unacceptable default mode. Of course, homophobia has not gone away and even most of my nicest straight friends are casually heterocentric. So tipping points are not victory, but they are a victory, a big wave in a sea of incremental change.) (Official Organizational Statements also bump up against my dislike of platitudes and virtue signaling, but if I want people to accept me when I'm awkwardly doing my best, I will try to return the favor.)

I felt good about the post. I didn't consider going to a protest, and I wondered if it was because I didn't care as much about police violence or Black people as I did about other things I've protested in my life: children in cages, gun violence, Trump's election, the end of affirmative action in the UC system, the failure of McDonald's to put veggie burgers on the menu in the nineties. That's probably something I should think about more. But also there's a pandemic going on, and cops and the National Guard are doing scary-ass shit. A better person would say "I'm going to use my white privilege to put my body between a Black person and a police officer." I am a frightened person who would rather use my hopefully long life to do quiet, decent work in the general direction of justice, to interrogate my thinking and lurch unsteadily forward. It takes all kinds...right?


Working this week has been emotional and confusing and frustrating. We were supposed to have a virtual gala last night, which was already our Plan B. We postponed it because our board and staff agreed it wasn't the right time. But it took a lot of fast-flying emails and Zoom meetings to arrive at that decision, and in the meantime, I drafted a half dozen mass communications that never saw the light of day.

But as I told the handful of people I talk to these days, If the biggest impact that police violence has on my life is that I have to write a blog post on a Sunday, I'm doing okay. 

"Okay" right now means exhaustion on top of exhaustion. I was already fried from trying to work and parent at the same time, which is totally unsustainable yet somehow being sustained, and now plans have shifted again. My life feels like one big inbox of unanswered emails.

Carvell Wallace, a writer whose worldview and approach always resonate with my own, has said his mission is simply to describe what it feels like. Sometimes I think I'm not an activist because the language of protest so often fails to describe what it feels like. I mean, that's not its job. Its job is to be loud and to disrupt and to get attention.

But when I imagine what it feels like to live with complex trauma, I think this is what it boils down to: Chronic uncertainty takes a toll. And the toll, when the repeated traumas are big enough, is not just a dull headache and a constant, unfulfilled desire to spend a weekend watching Netflix under the covers. The toll is addiction, dropping out of school, turning on people you love, and sometimes your own life, in big ways and small.

Photo by munshots on Unsplash

For the first couple of years after cancer treatment, I hated making plans more than a couple of weeks out. Every time AK wanted to book a vacation a few months in advance, I would clearly and superstitiously issue a disclaimer: Yes, I wanted to visit our friend Emily in New Zealand, but I had a doctor's appointment between now and then, and if I got bad news, all bets were off. I still have a complicated relationship with the calendar, but in the seven years since, more things have worked out than not (knockonwood), and so my neuro pathways are like, Okay, we get that all plans are subject to change, but not all plans DO change. 

But what if almost all plans changed? I remember interviewing a Homeboy trainee who lived in Vietnam as a child in the late 1970s and '80s, where he saw people shot and set on fire at the grocery store. When he came to the US, he landed in East LA in the late '80s, another war zone. At school, kids made fun of his English. At night, he drove around town with his cousins because they had nothing better to do. A cop pulled them over and smashed their tail light with his baton.

Or maybe he put drugs or a gun in their trunk. Or maybe both. There were so many trainees with stories like this that I can't keep them straight. For a long time, he did okay--miraculously, thrivingly okay--in a world that, when not actively trying to kill him, was busy reminding him it could. But last I heard, he was living in a tent on the streets.

Photo by Laura Allen on Unsplash

My friend Shea wrote wrote in her book, Exactly as You Are, about the reassurance of Mister Rogers' everyday liturgies: changing his shoes, feeding his fish. As someone who ruminates about The Big Shit (cancer, whether we're on the verge of civil war), I tend to dismiss "do something small for yourself" self-care advice. How can I take a relaxing bath when we're on the verge of civil war?! But then a stressful work thing gets postponed, or I get a good night's sleep, and I do feel better about The Big Shit, which makes me realize that my daily stress dovetails with my Big Shit stress. It's useful to realize, and it makes me feel like a dumb little animal, easily appeased with a treat. (And I am that.)

But also, what if liturgies aren't just about soothing neural pathways (though they are that), but a sort of cosmic reminder that there is constancy in the universe and connectedness to this troubling material world? What if trauma/evil is anything that gets in the way of constancy and connectedness? And, needless to say, trauma/evil is unequally distributed in this world, where Black people cannot be reasonably confident that they won't be shot in their own living rooms.


Right now, I feel too old and cranky for social media, which is like "Don't forget about this issue as soon as the news cycle changes, you big jerk!" (but, like, has that person posted about children in cages recently?) or "White people are not allowed to post anything until Thursday" or--in the case of certain Manhattan Beach types--"Oh no, [favorite yuppie store] is boarded up! Stay safe, [favorite yuppie store]!"

Right now, I also think about my uncle, a former cop who now works as a psychologist, counseling cops and advising police departments. Yes therapy for all cops, please. Yes therapy for everyone traumatized by cops, please. I think about my college friend who became a police detective, and Jill Leovy's thesis, in Ghettocide, that the solution to community violence is to better fund and investigate homicide, and lighten up on pervasive, oppressive prosecution of petty crimes/"crimes."

This statement is really heartening to people like me, who often feel crushed by the weight of perfectionism. But perfectionism is a stupid luxury we don't have time for.

I'm not sure it's as simple as "defund the police." (Although AK just informed me how much the police actually get in LA and, wow, okay, let's look into this People's Budget.) It's not as simple as working for a nonprofit that does nice things. It's not as simple as posting a black square on Instagram; it's not as simple as telling people not to post a black square on Instagram for various hashtag-related reasons. But none of that means we get to stop trying.