Distinguished and Singing

yesterday was a big day for me!

i released an EP, a small odd intimate music project of songs and a story written during my sabbatical over beats my friend J-Mythos created. it’s called The Sabbatical Suite and it’s on streaming services. my general approach to my music has been that i write and sing it every day, occasionally share snippets, and dream of making a massive musical project where i get to build the soundscape from the ground up. this is my small step in the direction of learning my singer self in public.

i was also honored to be the IHR Distinguished Lecturer at Arizona State University yesterday, and i wanted to share an excerpt from my talk notes here because i am interested in these questions on identity, community and belonging. the full speech is available here.

more and more i think of myself as a ‘scholar of belonging’, which is an idea that emerged in conversation with my friend and teacher Prentis Hemphill.

how do we belong to this place, this planet, this species, this family, this love, this friendship, this body, this community?

i think, especially for those of us with a lineage of displacement, forced displacement, economic displacement, from the lands that we were indigenous to – we need to rediscover belonging.

in somatics and embodiment work we learn that the most basic humans needs are safety, dignity and belonging. we try belonging in so many ways – in family, religious spaces, hobbies or shared fandom, and definitely we show up in movement expecting belonging. movements need to be spaces that get good at belonging, cultivating belonging, because we want to be an invitation, and we want to be a sanctuary, and we want to be a space that can hold and grow the future.

this thought occurred to me last night while rereading all about love by bell hooks. i’m reading it aloud with my fiancé (yes to cocreating liberated relationship!) and we’re in chapter 8, on community. as we read hooks’ exploration of why we don’t know how to really do community, i had two ahas.

one: we need to give bell hooks so many more flowers and awards and donations.

two:

right now, people are confusing identity with community, and finding no satisfaction in either place.

identity (racial, class, sexual, etc) is often, initially, externally defined, a label for distinction, a construct developed for supremacy and oppression, a practice of compartmentalizing a whole complex miraculous person into one aspect of themselves which can be marked off with a check box.

identity is often quite binary, asking us to answer yes or no about aspects of ourselves that are much more complex, dynamic and spectrum-oriented than that.

lately i have been thinking that every binary i can think of, applied to humans, is conservative – good/bad, right/wrong, boy/girl. conservative meaning, trying to control and constrict nature, deny complexity, make rigid what is fluid. we have to survive and reclaim ourselves from most identities.

now – we are a resilient species on a resilient earth, and earth species are all programmed to adapt, so many of us have ended up finding ways to experience joy and power within these identities, claiming them as suits of armor within which we fight for our freedom.

some of us feel, deeply or briefly, a sense of belonging within specific identities.

being Black, for many of us, means having unspeakable trauma at our backs, having been wrenched from our ancestral and tribal homelands, languages, songs, the earth we knew, and surviving ten, twelve generations of torture, misery, violence, rape, child loss, and dehumanization. somewhere inside of that we claimed each other across history and language and cultural distinctions. (and being honest, its still never been an unconditional love situation).

we aren’t the only peoples who were collapsed into an identity by shared experiences of trauma and external reduction.

at minimum, identity can be a crucial space from which to organize across shared experience.

but identity doesn’t equal, or promise, community.

community is a place to practice and participate in care, attention, knowing and being known, being protected, having room to make mistakes and still belong…not just allowed to be there, but be valuable…to heal. to recover. community feels responsible for each other.

community is a choice. more precisely, community is an accumulation of choices made every day, a set of growing practices.

we can have community that is drawn together based on shared identity – BOLD (Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity) is that for me. but it only works because it allows a wide ranging space for us to be in our own Black experiences without negating each other. and because it centers around naming and healing trauma together, while actively changing material conditions, learning together through political education, and delighting in the pleasure of being together.

most of us long for community. we expect and sometimes demand it from those with whom we share identity.

but who teaches us how to…community?

bell hooks examines this at the realm of family, where there are so many assumptions and so few skills.

in school we might get lucky enough to have teachers who can help us learn community skills, but they’re being paid to teach us to score well on tests. and to compete with each other. we are being trained to be capitalists – to compete, in a system of scarcity, to be better than each other to access resources to meet our basic human needs. octavia speaks of this in lilith’s brood as our fatal human flaw, our combination of intelligence and hierarchy. so we aren’t guaranteed to learn how to be in community in schools.

the internet is confusing cause we can feel like we are generating belonging there…and we can practice community there, but it’s also a space where we can get super mixed up about what we mean by community, how we understand and navigate identity, and how we answer the need for belonging amongst strangers – even if we are somewhat intimate strangers.

then there’s our organizations…some of us call them family hoping for belonging, but, just like in family spaces, we don’t necessarily learn to navigate the things that will shake our foundations and split us apart. we break each other’s hearts trying to practice community there, and in our larger movement formations.

in our formations we are ostensibly trying to generate belonging and community through shared analysis and practice, but we often end up trying to one up each other for unnamed social power, policing each other, pointing at each other’s imperfections, shortcomings, misalignments. simultaneous to these internal struggles, we are also struggling for survival because we are pitched against each other for what we’re told are limited resources. for the most part, the philanthropy that funds movement work has not supported belonging…

when i look at movements, and at humans in general, i see how deeply we want belonging, but how we are trained to use every breath to not belong to each other.

then we land in spaces of identity, which are massive – Black, immigrant, tran, queer, disabled, woman, southern – spaces which are too broad and divergent to actually offer and sustain belonging for the individuals within.

that longing for belonging can then grow toxic: ‘i don’t feel heard, or seen. someone is going to see me, even if i have to throw a tantrum or cause harm to get attention.’

we get in a loop – ‘my identity is under attack’, or being ignored! or being coopted! or just…has it the worst!

then everyone shows up in vague but righteous solidarity, maybe we change how we speak of that identity…but do we see a change of any behaviors?

the rash of crimes and hateful acts against people who share the identity of Asian, and trans, and Black, and immigrant, and sex worker, and and and…it’s spreading. its ubiquitous now to hear about identity-based harm.

and when we most need each other, even within ‘movement’ spaces, our internal attacks on each other, our intolerance with each other’s failures, is also on the rise. our fragility in the realm of connection is the highest i’ve seen, right when our need for interdependence and being aligned with something larger than ourselves is…desperate.

deep breath, this is the water we’re swimming in.

on every level, the answer is community.

both community for those identities under attack – we have to get in or deepen how we are in community with each other. we combat regressive, conservative, narrow thinking, the racism and white supremacy and stereotypes, at the level of community – that’s where we can be accountable to each other, intervene on harmful thinking and action.

we also have to know that community is the answer for traumatized and lost people causing harm. and it’s easier to say: no – those flawed disruptive, damaged people? they don’t belong to me. to us. but this is how we end up complicit in a prison system. someone, someone has to be willing to be in community, accountability, responsibility with those who fall out of alignment with their own spiritual growth, and with the collective. someone has to stay curious about the roots of harm, and what dissatisfaction, what longing, what trauma, is at the root of the harm?

these are different communities, or different components within a community. every identity or multi-identitied grouping needs to cultivate actual community.

as we heal, as we regain our humanity, what we all need is community. with these things which currently have us split from each other, we need to remove what is toxic at the level of belief and behavior, not at the level of the individual.

we have to imagine these open, festering wounds as clean scars, markings of something we learned from, and outgrew. let capitalism, and patriarchy, and supremacy, let it all become scars on our healing, collective body.

fortunately there are communities developing resources around these things. (donate, buy their resources, reference and cite them!)

the embodiment institute

just practice

BOLD

bay area transformative justice center: pods!

M4BL

the body is not an apology

esii mediation resource

Freedom Stories, by Siwatu Salama-Ra

Four years ago this month, my friend Siwatu Salama-Ra was incarcerated for defending her mother, her daughter and herself. The community was galvanized and everyone played some part in loving her and her family. Miraculously, her conviction was overturned, but not until she had had to give birth in prison, and had a chance to organize with other mothers there. These two short pieces are about what emerged during her time there.

Secret Unit Baby Shower

Inside my cell, I tore a simple piece of lined paper and wrote “mama’s wish list” at the top and passed it cell to cell.

It was against the rules to pass one thing to another so you had better not gotten caught.

The paper made it around the whole unit without notice from the prison cops.

Never able to have a baby shower with family and friends, or the freedom to pick out cute clothes, each mama wrote with tears in her eyes `Onesies, stroller, play pin, clothes, pacifier, toys, car seat.’

This special piece of paper made its way back to my cell.

I mailed it out to the Freedom Team. They put out the memo.

Over 500 people donated, making sure every item on the list made it to the families who would be the new caretakers of babies birthed under carceral control.
I’ll never forget the smiles on these mamas’ faces when they called home to hear indeed a package had arrived.

I call it, organizing love in hell.

Poetry On The Yard

Time moves slowly in prison, every minute has to be accounted for.

We mamas and pregnant folk sat at the picnic table in a fenced bobwired yard.

Jessica had a notebook, I sliced a sheet from it and passed a piece of paper to each one of us.

I asked if we could spend the next while writing a poem.

Silence stood.

Soon with pens in our hands we started to write.

More silence.

One by one we read our poetry out loud. I could remember the Ooooooo’ s and Ahhhhhh’s, loud laughter and moments of praise after each poem like we sat in a open mic event.

It was some of the best poetry I had ever heard.

After all, some of the best poets are sitting in a prison cell.

Later on, with the permission of my comrades, these poems would be published in a local philly Magazine.

if you’re good, say you’re good

i keep having this odd little experience where i ask people how they are and they tell me how bad the world is and then kind of whisper at the end ‘but i am actually loving being home’ or ‘i am actually doing good in spite of thewholeworldbeingincrisis thing’ or ‘i am actually thriving in these conditions.’

i want to explore for a moment how important it feels to claim what is good in this time.

first of all, BRAVO. whatever you have done to get to a good place right now took labor – spiritual, mental, emotional…and probably physical. i know that i am doing good right now because i go spelunking through the not-good with my therapist each week, and i cry a lot, and i have rearranged my living space so many times that my furniture has attachment issues.

when i ask my secretly good friends what they’re doing to create the good, it is some of the hardest work of their lives, setting new boundaries and patterns and permissions on their time and attention. it’s not easy to be good right now – don’t add the additional work of containing it.

second, it makes more support and mutual emotional aid possible. if we think everyone is just out here overextended and suffering, it becomes harder to risk asking for what we need. i am thriving in large part because i am in relationships where we stagger support, giving freely when we are the ones who have energy/love/money/time, and asking freely (or reluctantly, depending on our shapes around interdependence) when we are the ones struggling/lonely/broke/maxed out.

when i think back nine months, i was really caught in a rough mental space and all by myself far from home, and it helped so much to feel the loving presence of my friends who were more grounded and with their loved ones. they couldn’t fix my problems, but they had capacity to be with me as i faced my shadows and reintegrated into this moment of life, so wildly different from what i’d dreamed. now that my roots are back in home soil and i can notice each time the sun shines, i have more capacity to be with those in their shadows.

third, deep connections thrive on authenticity. a hidden light still shines, still shows, still emits warmth. in the same way it sows distrust to sense unnamed trouble in each other, dissonance can arrive with unnamed happiness, and especially intentionally denied joy.

there are times when we are truly all in the trenches of shadow times, dragging each other through salt and mud and just barely making our way through it. we can feel and name those times, and survive in the honesty that we don’t have much to offer each other except our own survival.

but honesty is just as important in our happiness, in our contentment. knowing that i can trust the words my friends speak to be a real reflection of how they are, and of what my intuition is sensing, allows me to relax and show up fully, knowing that they will let me hold them when they need holding, and let me know if they can hold me when i need holding, and let us just hold each other tight in the muck when it comes to that.

fourth, we learn good from each other. most of the ways i am practicing my contentment in this moment come from studying people who lived/live fully into their lives, in whatever time. black feminists past and present, close friends who point out the mind, body, spirit, boundary, listening and therapeutic balance of a good life. i am a practice adopter! if i hear something is working i try it:

life hacks for making more space in small space,
body practices for staying flexible and mobile indoors,
apps for meditation,
playlists,
therapists,
having more plants,
getting in water daily be it bath or shower,
drinking more water,
a desk that can transition to standing,
lavender mist near my bed,
more time with my ancestor altar,
having a clear end to work time and not expecting anything like my old full-time self to be possible right now,
intentional check-ins with loved ones,
watching movies at a distance – especially with kids,
doing what i love as my job,
surrounding my life with art,
being more fair in arguments,
reducing my belongings,
redistributing time from social media to reading,
having boundaries out loud in real time

…these are all learned behaviors.

a lot of the possible good in this time is circumstantial – the physical space you’re in and how many people are there with you, the guidelines and practices of covid-19 safety in your town and community, economic status, how many people you’ve lost and how close they are to your heart, how many crises you’re holding, your own health.

and inside all of the circumstances, there’s the possibility of this being one of the most beautiful, connected, grounded, liberating, fertile, creative, abundant times of your life.

there’s also, and this feels very related to abundance, the possibility that these are your last days. how do you treat precious time?

there’s a possibility that these are the first days of a great era in your life, or the days when you will have the most impact, the days of the hardest work, the biggest release, the most important memories you’ll carry forward.

you don’t have to shout it out everywhere. i think often of my teacher spenta kandawalla asking what it would take to be able to answer the question ‘how are you?’ with ‘i’m good,’ and to mean it.

so, if you’re good, say you’re good. it doesn’t negate reality, it weaves your reality into the fabric of this complex time.

you can also keep your complex answers, of course – i for one am grieving and good. stretched and good. want to go to a beach, and also good. but the main news, the thing i have worked hard enough to claim, the way i can be of use to my beloved community, is to be honest that right now, today, i’m good.

live footage from 2021 inauguration

live footage from the 2021 inauguration!

jk, this is future footage.

jk, the wicked witch is still alive…but this flooded my senses when I woke up today, and when I found and watched it, it felt emotionally accurate.

to all the dorothys out there, keep throwing houses. to all the glindas, keep casting spells. to all the cowards, scarecrows and tin men, keep searching for your hearts, courage and brains. to the people, it’s OK to celebrate, to let relief move through you. today deserves internal ceremony as bombastic as anything on TV.

we not home yet, but we have everything we need to get there.

post nationalism in the age of cooptation and other dumpster fires

during election seasons, it can get a bit murky trying to navigate other people’s political identities. i have recently been called someone who believes in the electoral process a few times, and i initially laughed, but then i thought it could be a great moment of clarification.

the first thing i ever wrote that was published in a book was “i hate politics.” that was in 2003, for an out-of-print book i coedited called How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office. i wrote about the compromise it was, to have radical politics but feel the need to navigate survival in the current political landscape. the book gathered examples of people who held their noses and harnessed election work as a tactic in larger fights.

my politics have changed a lot as new data and context has entered, but that fundamental piece has not really shifted that much – i don’t think nation is the way, particularly this one: a political system designed for exclusion while using the language of ‘the people’.

complexity guides my organizing priorities, still. i don’t believe our electoral system works, and i don’t believe we can completely abandon it while we practice governance elsewhere – i believe we need to move in ways that protect and center the most vulnerable as we reach for a dream of cooperative governance.

i find most of the work of u.s. politics to be cyclical in the worst ways, illogical, presumptive, illusory, performative and not actually useful in the work of improving lives. i left electoral politics for direct action, and then emergent strategy. but i continue to engage a multitude of tactics simultaneously, which i see many in our movements able to do well.

i just want to speak for a moment on the peace it gives me to be a post nationalist.

because most modern nation-states form within the context of the age of supremacy, nationalism often requires it’s practitioners to claim some supremacy. especially the younger and more immature said nation is. that’s how a warmongering, politically divided, arms bearing, death penalty practicing, pandemic petri dish of a nation, which has never fully (economically) accounted for its genocidal, enslaving foundation, can claim it is the best at anything.

is there magic here? of course. but traveling far and wide will show you that there is the potential for magic any time humans come together. across celebrated differences, yes, and in deeply monocultural spaces where we get to celebrate something widely shared. the magic comes not from an unfulfilled dream, or string-swelling theme song of a narrative, but from the miracle of life in proximity to itself.

i think the best thing that could happen to the u.s. is what has happened to other blustering empires – rome is delightful as a place of history, relic, food, art, commerce…it’s not the center of anything except perhaps a certain romantic narrative, and that’s fine. england is rainy, quirky, has lovely gardens, fantastic museums, and an excellent selection of mushrooms in camden yards. the sun sets on whatever is still british, and then it rises through a fog and life goes on. nation as superpower is definitely over.

but this nation, the u.s., can’t imagine the end of its empire phase and doesn’t currently have a coherent national identity. unless it’s rash compulsive rebellion and trolling? or ostrich tactics in the face of our impacts?

post nationalism gives me room to see the u.s. through a lens of compassion…it’s doing the best it can as a flawed structure. it’s a sum of disparate parts that actually don’t have an organic cohesion, and never did.

post nationalism helps me remember that i was never a part of the dream of this place, and that those i have dreamt alongside of have mostly been killed here.

i write this on the birthday of martin luther king, jr, who dreamed of something profoundly simple – a land where humans could be human together. for this he was killed, and then rebranded as a hero of and for this place, as if the dream slipped out on his last breath into the soil. i still share his dream, the seeds he cast took root in me. i water them with my work, which is not for this nation which has still not reckoned with its racism, materialism or militarism. i don’t expect humane and planetary dreams to manifest in spaces where they are continuously shortchanged, fed words without acts. i dream for the species, i dream for Black people.

post nationalism gives me room to focus on conditions. what are the conditions in which we learn to make our dreams politically possible? what conditions allow us to catch our breath and move beyond the desperate acts of survival? what are the conditions in which we create muscle memory around our humanity, around our relationship to the planet, around justice that transforms harm, around cooperation and collectivism, around liberation?

to create those conditions i use every tool in the box – the sharp clean tools of revolution and the rusted tools, like elections with a busted electoral college mess, which are still most accessible to the masses. i know that the hardest step is not getting people to choose the best tools, but inspiring people to want to build something at all. and then, growing the belief that there is a structure they could cocreate in which they could belong without battle. i believe people can and will demand better tools as they fall in love with their own possible futures.

being a post nationalist is feeling constantly aware that our species precedes our nation, and if our nation is not worthy of the miraculous, then it will be succeeded by those of us who choose to align with life oriented structures instead of institutions stagnant in their power struggles.

so, do i celebrate when the conditions allow us more breath, more room to practice; when the conditions allow more of the most vulnerable amongst us a chance to be a part of something beyond this? yes i do.

do i believe that this electoral system is a path to liberation? no i don’t.

do i judge you justice fighters for your patriotism or your anarchy? only if it is purely theoretical. if you are trying, truly trying to figure out ways this species of ours, and particularly my people, Black and Brown and queer and trans and weird and visionary and disabled people, get to perpetuate in ever improving and liberating conditions, then i can respect our differences. i promise not to flatten you if you are practicing a vision of the future that you truly and deeply believe in. and i promise to stay three dimensional at minimum in my own complex beliefs and practices.

dreamer, out.

what is unveiled? the founding wound. (poem/directive)

a body is always a body
individual or collective
(whole or in many pieces)
alive or, later, dead
a body is aways vulnerable

a wound is always a wound
singular and deep
or many cuts, slowly, blood everywhere
left untreated, unstaunched, denied
a wound will always fester

the first wound happens within
the violence of birth
the expulsion from the illusion of safety
from the idea that someone (else)
will do all the labor

and some of us keep looking everywhere
for placenta, for mothering
for acceptance of our worst choices
to be told we are so special
to be named a favorite child

some of us learn to work
we are given tools, lectures, practices
we are given the blessing of knowing
that work to nourish the collective
is a sacred path for our lives

some are only taught to eat
given the title to land that isn’t ours
judged for the speck of dirt under our nails
set to race against even our own kin
for the neverending victory of more

some of us are black
still nauseous from the boat’s hold
still catching our breath from snapped ropes
still oiling our calloused field hands
and still wounded

some of us are white
still synonymous with impossible purity
still given no songs from the earth
still taught to master nothing but superiority
and still, wounded

some of us are red, yellow, brown
still made to feel tertiary to the plot
still dismissed for all we remember
still claiming we are human, not terrorist
and, still wounded

some of us are never surprised
never apoplectic when the stench hits us
what rots at the core is known, documented
it is tangible, moral, American, spiritual
it is the founding wound

gray only at the surface
brittle black where the injury began
a rainbow of bruising everywhere
green mold making life in dying flesh
but the pus, the pus bursts white

we are well past the age of turning inwards
of seeing the open wounds on our souls
of stepping into our shadows with truth light
of seeing we were shaped, and can change
of believing the wound is who we are

we know the smell of decay on breath
we see the swollen cracking flesh of infection
it is not rude to acknowledge the stink
to wonder if it is viral, venom, survivable
to look for the laceration(s)

things are not getting worse
they are getting uncovered
we must hold each other tight
and continue to pull back the veil
see: we, the body, we are the wounded place

we live on a resilient earth
where change is the only constant
in bodies whose only true whiteness
is the blood cell that fights infection
and the bone that holds the marrow

remove the shrapnel, clean the wound
relinquish inflammation, let the chaos calm
the body knows how to scab like lava stone
eventually leaving the smooth marring scars
of lessons learned:

denial will not disappear a wound

the wound is not the body

a body cannot be divided into multiple living entities (what us will go on breathing?)

the founder’s wound is the myth of supremacy

this is not the first wound, or the last

we are a species before we are a nation, and after

warriors, organizers, storytellers, dreamers – all of us are healers

the healing path is humility, laughter, truth, awareness and choice

a scab is a boundary on territory, between what is within and what is without, when the line has been breached

stop picking at the scab, it slows the healing

until we are dead, and even when we are exhausted and faithless, we fight for life

we are our only relevant hope
we are our only possible medicine

a body is always a body
wounded, festering, healing, healed
we choose each day what body we will shape
with the miraculous material we’re gifted
let us, finally, attend to the wound
let us, finally, name the violence
let us, finally, break the cycle of supremacy
let us, finally, choose ourselves whole
let us, finally, love ourselves
whole.

New Year’s Day 2021 Tarot Spread

Past/Present/Future Spread

Past Question: What can we learn and carry forward from 2020? Page of Swords

“The young crow uses his strength and stamina to carry the sword through an intense energy storm. Along the way, he may have lost a few feathers, but it was a small price to pay for a chance at something more significant. The Page has found his stride and approaches the goal with a steady and relentless determination. The time is now to take action.”

Present question: How do we ground in the present moment? Page of Pentacles

“Your situation will benefit from a realistic approach, one that places a heavier emphasis on doing rather than dreaming. Your efforts will be rewarded. Manifesting a goal can take time, and you may encounter challenges. Use any obstacles or setbacks as a way to prove yourself dependable and dedicated to fully realizing your dream. When you need to be flexible and adapt to a changing environment quickly, use the octopus’ energy to smooth out the transition. This dynamic and intelligent animal creates a healing space after suffering a loss, and encourages new growth to emerge as a new strength is formed.”

Future question: How should we enter 2021?
Mama Staff

“Mama Staff is the energy of fire and water. She represents adaptability, generosity, and graceful power. When fire and water come together, they create the energy and power that fuels Mama Staff. This steamy nature can reveal itself through her feminine sensuality and eroticism, where emotional depth and passion meet. She is a brilliant and creative force who brings life, light, and new vigor to any situation. She will assist those who are vulnerable and without protection unceasingly. Mama Staff is the pressure under which diamonds are created. She teaches us to play on our own terms while also understanding the complex needs of the emotional realm. You may feel a calm sense of authority and persistence, or awaken to your true self. Mama Staff also reminds us to work on our sacral energies, cultivating healthy sexual expression. Creativity, sex, and drive reside in the sacral chakra, so our sensuality or eroticism can be indicators of how or what we manifest into our lives.”

Today’s tarot cards and quotes are from:

Past, the Crow Tarot deck, which lives on my ancestor altar.

Present, the Guardian of the Night deck, which lives on my plant altar.

Future, the Dust 2 Onyx Tarot Deck, which lives on my tarot altar.

(feel free to do this spread for yourself, your pod, or your group)

thank you 2020

dear 2020

it would be a lie to say you were a reasonable year, a restful year, or a year i would want to linger in. i used the words dumpster trash fire often when speaking of you, and it was as literal as i could be.

and yet.

you were the last year of many lives, lives that mattered to me, changed me, grew me, touched me.

you were a year of collective care that gave me small hope in the face of great obstacles.

you were a year of manifestation for so many necessary creations.

humans mostly mark time in this way now, measuring how often we circle around the sun instead of, say, the moon cycles we’ve known (i think i am 504-514 moon years old) or key lessons (i feel maybe 55 key lessons old, but it could be thousands, or three…). so the sun pulls us around her in orbit, and we say it means wisdom, celebration.

i am interested in the meaning we make inside the time, the cycles of learning. and i made so much meaning inside of you, 2020. so i offer you my gratitude.

thank you for showing me how deeply i need to rest, and how it takes me giving myself permission over and over and over again to practice simple things like sleeping, sitting still, taking my time, and finding my own pace.

thank you for reminding me how precious life is. because so much death came in these twelve months, i have had to reckon with what makes life worth living. i have gotten clearer on what matters to me, what i want to spend my life doing, and what i love.

thank you for teaching me about love. i love being alive, and many of the ways humans are living – i am so grateful that i give fucks, that i love the earth, that i dream of and practice justice, that i can laugh in almost any circumstance. i am grateful that i can feel this truth: even the lives of my opponents have magic and laughter in them.

thank you for making me be creative with how i love – i love showing my precious people how much i care for them, with gifts of song, ritual, and attention. i also appreciate the grueling and liberating labor of learning how to be honest in real time and trusting love to guide my relationships home.

thank you for teaching me about authenticity. i got to live my life from my home more than ever before as an adult – less and less performative as the months passed. i got to cook and do yoga and take baths and dance and think and pray and be in ritual from the same place where i write all my thoughts.

thank you for teaching me what mutual aid looks like in practice, how much i already have, how much i want to give, how nourishing it is to feel the abundance of the collective. i am grateful for how clearly care was the mvp of the year.

thank you for offering me back the practice ground of my body. when i couldn’t travel, or go swim, or have adventures beyond my front door, my body truly became the wonderland – what can i learn here, how can i worship here, where is the water within, how can i create a retreat for my body wherever i am, and how does my body want my space arranged? how does my body stay safe and connected? how does my body move through rage and solitude and still feel the miracle of interdependence? i have learned how resilient and powerful and beautiful and possible it is to be in any body that lives.

and thank you, of course, for my new ancestors. the ancestor altar at the heart of my home is so full, and i imagine the unleashed souls of my loved ones welcoming each other and praying for us with their act of deepest rest. so many, my god so many. thank you.

thank you for reminding me that it is all love – this grief, that rage, that hunger, this loneliness, this meal, that kiss, those gifts, this phone call, that reunion, this parental hug, this nibbling tear, those lovers’ hours, that video dance party, these compromises, this pounding heart…love.

thank you for the sun through the window, the snow on the ground, the plants that still grow, the species still thriving, the air we can breathe, the water we can drink, the miracle of life on this perfect planet.

you were an abundant year. i humbly place my cheek on the dirt for the abundance of lessons and surrenders and tendernesses you offered me, us.

with love
amb

root and hibernate

“everyone needs more than anyone can give right now.”

i feel like a combination of griefs tossed me into a cloud of volcanic rage ash (again) and it took many friends, tears, rituals, chani nicholas apps, bursts of good news, acts of service and therapy (again) to get a toe to touch back down to the ground. i know i need deeper roots for the next year or 200.

this sentence from a post that my friend ashindi maxton shared has become a voice in my head, helping me access compassion, patience, breath and quiet. these are impossible times. and “these are the times to grow our souls,” grace lee boggs keeps whispering into my youngest tears. ‘and/and’ as my therapist says.

as i head into hibernation, i am aware that i have given all i can this year, am giving all i can in every connection, aware that we all need more. and…rifling thru my memories of each beloved i grieve, i notice the flashbacks are sparce and visceral and true and precious, and so i also know that somehow this not enough will be just enough, this day and the ones i spent wandering in all the grief and the ones i filled with ranting and the ones where i surrendered to joy and satisfaction, the best ones where i sang and played with the babies and held my loved ones and learned and wrote, all of them together are my abundant life in a rich ecosystem of love. i commit to living a life that leaves memories of shared pleasure and deep presence, memories that carry laughter and delight and an ache of longing for more.

SistaSoul Search Retreat Speech, Dec 12, 2020

As shared in keynote event, I wanted to offer to all Black women:

Thank you all for having me – it is an honor to get to come and speak with you, as Black women of faith, who are working to change the world, who are working for reparations, who are working for reproductive justice, who are navigating the complicated relationship with voting in this country, who are combating anti-blackness. I salute you, to begin with, because those are all the things. Thank you.

I am here today to speak with you about our pleasure.

Pleasure Activism – this is a book I wrote and gathered about my own journey with pleasure. I am going to speak about that, but first I want to say why such a book was even needed. Why Audre Lorde had to write the Uses of the Erotic as Power, the text which is the river flowing throughout the book.

The Black experience is by no means a monolithic experience – some of us have ancestors who were enslaved here, some of us have immigration stories of choice, some of us had to escape where we were and this was the only choice. Some of us can trace our lineage back to a specific origin, and some of us feel longing for a mother tongue we wouldn’t recognize if we heard it. Some of us were raised being told we had kings and queens as ancestors, and others with an anti-monarchial class analysis that says it’s more likely we descended from workers. Some of us were raised to be patriots to a nation in which we could make it if we just worked hard enough, others were told never to trust a thing this country told us, to seek our liberation by any means necessary. There are as many experiences as there are Black people.

There are, however, some things that tie us together into a fairly common experience.

One is that we have had to be people of faith. Be it religious or revolutionary, we have had to place our faith in something larger than us, get interconnected, something that could fuel us through challenges as impossible as forced sterilization, being separated from our children, being subjugated by patriarchs, living in places that couldn’t see or love us.

Another thing we often share is that we have had to normalize the labor of martyrdom. I cannot think of a Black woman in my life who has not been overworked and underpaid at least once in her life. I can think of so many Black women who have given their all to personal and professional labor which has not given them, us, back care, stability, ease, health, leadership or love.

Many of us share a history of sexual harm in the form of molestation, assault, harrassment, rape, or silencing of our sensual instincts.

Many of us share stories of reproductive grief and fear.

Many of us need help, permission and guidance to see our bodies as a site of pleasure, joy, satisfaction, contentment, happiness, ease, rest, peace.

I wrote Pleasure Activism for women like myself. I was smart, hard working, and when I showed up to work I got things done. Like many of us, when I was young I was given leadership “opportunities” which were often unveiled, with time, to be undervalued spaces of extreme labor. And I did the labor, eagerly seeking the belonging and love that was stolen from me at the ancestral level – you know I believe we all belong to the land, and when we are stolen from the land, or lands, we are meant to know, we can search high and low and in and out for that tether, that unconditional belonging that comes on land which knows your name.

I didn’t belong in the military world I’d grown up in with ARMY dad.

I didn’t belong in the sleeping world in which american dreamt its way through egregious injustice.

I didn’t belong to Black revolutionary space because I was queer and quirky and the men didn’t know what to do with me if i wouldn’t respect the myth of their superiority and/or sleep with them.

I didn’t belong anywhere else because I just knew that a Black queer feminist worldview was the liberating thought process that fit my mind and heart…so i floated around busting my butt for the movement, repressing my need for healing, for health, for a living wage, for respect, for consideration, for sleep…I confused numbing myself and escaping for pleasure. I confused being drunk, high, sexual, binge eating and living a deeply foggy life for pleasure.

And if we were all in the room together I would ask if you know what I mean. If you too have been the leader in your household, in your community, in your organization, church, mosque, temple, network, state, nation – if you have realized at some point that you couldn’t feel anymore, that you were scrolling through your life, that you were the most accountable person in the room and you were tired.

And that brings us to this paragraph from Audre Lorde:

“…when we begin to live from within outward, in touch with the power of the erotic within ourselves, and allowing that power to inform and illuminate our actions upon the world around us, then we begin to be responsible to ourselves in the deepest sense. For as we begin to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering, and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like the only alternative in our society. Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within. In touch with the erotic, I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial.”

Reading Audre, and looking at my life, I had this awakening – I am not constructed for suffering. I am not a miraculous being meant to toil to the bone for other people’s imaginations which are based in me shrinking and serving them. And I am not meant to give continuously of my gifts and talents where there is no love – that is self-denial.

So I began to study in earnest. And I wrote a column for Bitch magazine called the pleasure dome, where I documented what was coming to understand. I wrote about getting comfortable in my naked skin, looking at myself, desiring myself and examining any fantasies in which a thin, white able body was more desirable than mine. Now it actually feels preposterous to me – bodies are all hot, they are all flesh and nerves and magic. But that took work. I had to learn what it meant to be in consent and to set and hold boundaries and negotiate the sex I wanted. I wrote about learning that I could ejaculate and about sex toys and pornography and period sex. I wrote about weed and ecstasy and healing and wholeness and Beyoncé and gratitude and nonmonogamy and liberated relationships. And when I reached my edges I reached out to others and wove in their knowledge on sex work and burlesque and pole dancing and humor and fashion and BDSM and casual sex through apps and pleasure while parenting and pleasure over sixty and pleasure with cancer. There is so much I didn’t get to include and I am still studying and practicing. I have a book in the works being co-edited by two thick Black femmes on Kink for Black Feminists. I want to really dive into the nonsexual pleasures of food, movement…I am reading Wicked Flesh my Jessica Marie Johnson, which gives incredible historical context to this condition of martyrdom…

The last thing I want to say is perhaps the edge I have been exploring most recently. I have been appalled at how so many of our hardest working Black organizers are treated. Underpaid, inhumane hours, yes. But I am speaking specifically about what happens when Black women step into the risk of leading. Saying – yes I will helm this organization. I will co-direct this network. I will work to align our vision and our values with what we can do in this time. I have been one of these leaders, and I have held many of them, and the current ease with which these leaders are attacked and disrespected is appalling to me. We are all learning how to navigate complexity and divergent paths towards liberation. We have disagreements, we have differences and contradictions, and of course, we make mistakes. But no one, not one of these leaders, deserves to be treated as enemy. Torn down. Threatened with death and targeted not just by the state, which we expect, but by those who call themselves comrades.

Often it is right at the moment of victory, at the moment of a small win in the long journey to liberation, when we should be uplifting each other, that we are instead moved to destroy our most precious parts, the black women mothering and midwifing revolution.

And I wonder, I wonder how deeply this capacity to mistreat Black women leaders is a sign of the same colonial thinking that originally disconnected us from our bodies, our power. That others expect us to mammy, expect us to martyr, expect us to toil without celebration or even attention. That if we work hard and we begin to shine, and our magic and power and even the pleasure of leadership – right, because it feels incredible to begin to learn what works, and to be in community with others dedicated to radical change and solutions and growing and learning in public, it’s such a balm when we find each other, when we have those moments of leaping forward and that light grows in us and the shine starts to show…but is there something in us at a collective level that feels compelled to police that, to control that, to shrink that, to shut it down?

I believe that there is inner work to reclaim our inherent right to pleasure, to awaken the wiring for delight and satisfaction that exists in each of us. But I also believe there is collective and perhaps congregational work to do, to be accountable for celebrating each other, and protecting each other. I think we need to ask ourselves every day: am I satisfiable? Are we satisfiable? And whose satisfaction is served when we tear down our own? Who is satisfied when we expect labor without offering gratitude? I want us to continue to work hard for that which is ours to do – our generation is here to defund the police and reclaim sovereignty over our reproduction and make racism past-tense – we have so much to do and I want us to work knowing that our community will love us when we fall, love us when we win, love us when we learn, love us when we change.

I am not waiting for reparations from anyone who doesn’t love me. I am reclaiming the love and pleasure due to me every day. We are reclaiming it as we scale our movements up to the level of justice. We give it to each other when we redistribute belonging, joy, satisfaction. And Black orgasms.