unthinkable thoughts: call out culture in the age of covid-19

update:

hi loves,

i am publishing a book called we will not cancel us and other dreams of transformative justice which includes a deeply edited version of this piece, reflections on what the responses to the piece taught me, other writing on tj, and what is still mine/ours to learn.

i am leaving this essay up here as part of the learning journey – it isn’t the beginning or end of the conversation or the learning. we aren’t going to all agree on every aspect of this, but i believe it’s up to us to keep learning together, keep growing each other, keep opening the conversation.

….

adaptation note:

Three pieces of information for those who see this and are moved to keep going.

One, the ‘we/who’ is movement workers, particularly those who identify as abolitionists, in Black and Brown centered organizing spaces.

Two, a trigger warning: in the piece below I speak of what I’m feeling and observing in this moment in terms of suicidal ideation, witch trials, and lynching.

Three, this piece is an invitation to more accountability, not less, to take each moment of conflict and harm as practice ground for abolition.

what do we do with unthinkable thoughts?

who are we in our unthinkable thinking moments?

how do we adapt together if the clues to our next pivot are unthinkable?

maybe sharing these unthinkable thoughts will help?

i’ll start with the scariest unthinkable thought for me, which is that maybe we are in a state of collective suicidal ideation – the state of thinking about, even planning, the end of us. i have thought this thought many times, for years.

i have ideated suicide in the past, thought it didn’t much matter if i was here or not, and so it didn’t much matter how i treated myself or others. when i was in that phase of ambiguous commitment to life, i took risks with my mind and body that i couldn’t imagine taking now. i practiced cynicism and hopelessness, as if they were the measures of humor, of intelligence. it was a brief phase of my life, but during that time i believed in nothing.

i tried to exit.

i then had to choose life from deep within me. that’s why i’m still here. i want to live. i want to want to live. i think everyone chooses to move towards life or away from it, though some don’t realize that they are making the choice. capitalism makes it hard to see your own direction.

as i have watched the world respond to the pandemic, the borders between nations shift meaning in my mind. i can see which countries choose life, and which don’t. which countries have a majority life-minded citizenship, which countries/regions elect leaders who care for them. which countries pivot at the highest governmental level to protect their people, to guide their people to protect themselves – places with a variety of economies and exposure have found ways to move towards life.

i wonder about the movements in those countries, what it might feel like to live and organize in a place that chooses life.

choosing life means being able to admit we are wrong when new information presents itself about the dangers around and amongst us.

choosing life means committing to the adaptations to stay alive, rather than the stubbornness to stay the same.

the u.s., as a nation, does not choose, or love, life. not yet, and possibly never before now.

other nations, many amongst the most developed in the world, initially shrugged at COVID-19. then they adapted.

the u.s. response has been more egregious than a shrug; it’s been a flagrant disregard, running towards a category five pandemic tornado. it’s meant that those of us who want to live are watching in horror as the mutating coronavirus fills in the pre-existing grooves of collective suicidal ideation and the resistance of those who love life – with climate deniers and corporate polluters on one side, environmental and climate justice movements on the other. white supremacists and patriarchs on one side, solidarity movements in race, ethnicity, class, gender, ability and sexuality arenas on the other.

we are a nation not divided but torn – pulled towards life and pulled towards death.

when i get that torn feeling within, which in recent years comes very rarely, in twinges and whisps, i now recognize it as the suicidal tendency in me. it’s not the truth, not the only truth, not my truth, not the choice i want to make. but the tendency is wiley, using the voices of people i love to make itself heard. i have to be vigilant, listen between the lines, ask: who would benefit from my absence? who benefits from my self-doubt?

our nation has a tendency towards its own destruction, a doubt of its right to exist, that is rooted in our foundation.

i think our movements struggle inside this larger national suicidal tendency – we want to grow, but at the same time some of us don’t believe we will all get there, or get anywhere better, in time. that we can’t, and won’t, put forth the effort.

maybe the idea of our future generations experiencing peace and abundance is not enough to keep us going.

maybe we just need some more immediate signs of life.

maybe we are terrified.

i, we, have to be able to discern what is me/us, and what is fear.

which leads to my next unthinkable thought: do i really know the difference between my discernment and my fear?

my dear friend Malkia teaches me that there is the fear intended to save your life, vs fear intended to end it. what i mean by discernment is the set of noticings, fears, wisdoms, deductions, and gut tremblings that want to save, or even just improve, my life, versus the fear that makes me unable to do anything, which makes me unable to draw on my life force to take action.

do i think i am being discerning when i am actually frozen in place, scared to change?

am i too scared of standing out from the crowd to pause and discern right action?

am i acting from terror?

am i able to discern a decision or action that makes sense?

i was in italy when the pandemic really became clear as a threat to my well-being. i went to one of the places i felt at home. and once i got there, i again found myself freezing, in denial of next moves, as everyone asked me where i was and when i was going home-home or elsewhere.

in my frozen state i would hear just a bit of the news, the new numbers of crisis, and shake my head at the idiots in office, and then numb back out. having quickly identified who i blamed, i was even less able to feel any agency in me. i froze and delayed and froze until i was overwhelmed by the inquiries.

then i had an excellent therapy session where i noticed:

oh. i am afraid.
i am afraid that the pandemic is on the rise everywhere and i am going to leave safety for a dangerous unknown.
oh!
i don’t know what to do!

as soon as i acknowledged i was afraid i was able to move into discernment. my fear became data – i am afraid because the numbers are clear that i am in a safer place than any of the locations i am considering going to. i should stay put, not because i am afraid, but because, as my fear is actually screaming on behalf of my informed intuition, this is the best place to be in this moment.

my fear made me freeze until i had to move. therapy helped me notice i was afraid, deepen my breath, and return to discernment.

i see the same vacillation between fear and discernment in our movements right now, with no therapist in sight.

we are afraid of being hurt, afraid because we have been hurt, afraid because we have caused hurt, afraid because we live in a world that wants to hurt us whether we have hurt others or not, just based on who we are, on any otherness from some long-ago determined norm. supremacy is our ongoing pandemic. it partners with every other sickness to tear us from life, or from lives worth living.

so we stay put and scream into the void, moving our rage across the internet like a tornado that, without discernment, sucks up all in its path for destruction.

our emotions and need for control are heightened during this pandemic – we are stuck in our houses or endangering ourselves to go out and work, terrified and angry at the loss of our plans and normalcy, terrified and angry at living under the oppressive rule of an administration that does not love us and that is racist and ignorant and violent. grieving our unnecessary dead, many of whom are dying alone, unheld by us. we are full of justified rage. and we want to release that rage. and one really fast and easy way to do this is what i experience as a salem witch trial, a false bid for justice, or the even faster method of lynching.

before i move on, i need to acknowledge that these are extreme terms, terms that refer to systems of death. i know that i am speaking of a social destruction, a significantly less extreme consequence – and i am trying to place my finger on a feeling of punitive justice unleashed in our movements.

in our movements, this feeling of punitive justice comes in the wake of call outs of leaders or those with some increased exposure or access. in the past week i have seen people called out for embodying white supremacy in the workplace, for causing repeated or one-time sexual harm, for physical, emotional or digital abuse, for appropriation of ideas and images, for patriarchy, for ableism, for being dishonest, for saying harmful things a decade ago, for doing things that were later understood as harm – for embodying all of the pain that supremacy holds. the call outs generally share one side of what’s happened and then call for immediate consequences. and within a day, the call out is everywhere, the cycle of blame and shame activated, and whoever was called out has begun being punished.

we are afraid, and we think it will assuage our fears and make us safer if we can clarify an enemy, a someone outside of ourselves who is to blame, who is guilty, who is the origin of harm. we can get spun into such frenzy in our fear that we don’t even realize we are deploying the master’s tools.

ah, audre, come in.

we’ve always known lynch mobs are a master’s tool. meaning: moving as an angry mob, sparked by fear (often unfounded or misguided) with the power to issue instant judgment and instant punishment. these are master’s tools.

we in movements for justice didn’t create lynch mobs. we didn’t create witch trials. we didn’t create this punitive system of justice. we didn’t create the state, we didn’t choose to be socialized within it. we want to dismantle these systems of mass harm, and i know that most of us have no intention of ever mimicking state processes of navigating justice.

the master’s tools feel good to use, groove in the hand easily from repeated use and training. but they are often blunt and senseless.

unless we have a true analysis of abolition and dismantling systems of oppression, we will not realize what’s in our hands, we will never put the master’s tools down and figure out what our tools are and can be.

oh – but you can’t say it’s a salem witch trial if it’s all Black and Brown and queer and trans people doing it…

oh – you can’t call it a lynching, because of the power dynamics! it’s a move against someone with more power.

but then – my third unthinkable thought – why does it feel like that? why do our movements more and more often feel like angry mobs moving against ourselves? and what is at stake because of it? why does it feel like someone pointing at someone else and saying: that person is harmful! and with no questions or process or time or breath, we are collectively punishing them?

sometimes we even do it with the language of transformative justice: claiming that we are going to give them room to grow. they need to disappear completely to be accountable. we are publicly shaming them so that they will learn to be better.

underneath this logic i hear: we are dunking her in the water to see if she drowns, because if she drowns then we know she wasn’t a witch. we are hanging him from the tree because then we can pretend we have exorcised ‘bad’ from our town. we are lynching to affirm our rightness.

which isn’t to say that some of the accused aren’t raging white supremacists in movement clothing. or abusers who have slipped through the fingers of accountability. or shady in some other way.

which isn’t to say that a public accounting of harm, and consequences, aren’t necessarily the correct move.

which isn’t to say we don’t believe survivors. because we must.

but how do we believe survivors and still be abolitionist? and still practice transformative justice?

to start with, i have been trying to discern when a call out feels powerful, like the necessary move, versus when it feels like the witch trial/lynch mob energy is leading.

it feels powerful when there have been private efforts for accountability.
it feels powerful when survivors are being supported.
it feels necessary when the accused has avoided accountability, particularly (but not exclusively) if they have continued to cause harm.
it feels necessary when the accused person has significantly more power than the accuser(s) and is using that power to avoid accountability.
it feels powerful when the demand is process and consequence based.

it feels like a lynch mob when there are no questions asked.
when the survivor’s healing takes a back seat.
when there is no attempt to have a private process.
when there is no time between accusation and the call for consequences. and when the only consequence is for the accused to cease to exist.
when the accused is from one or more oppressed identities.
when it feels performative.
when the person accused of causing harm does what the survivor/crowd demands, but we keep pulling up the rope.

no inquiry, no questions, no acceptance of accountability, no jury, no time for the learning and unlearning necessary for authentic change…just instant and often unsatisfactory consequences.

a moment on this: one of the main demands i see in call outs is for a public apology. to expect a coherent authentic apology from someone who has been forcibly removed from power or credibility feels like a set up. usually they issue some pr sounding thing and we use that paper as more fuel for the fire at their feet.

i have seen the convoluted denial-accountability-nonapology message from many an accused harm doer, especially when physical or sexual harm is involved. sometimes they are claiming innocence, sometimes they are admitting to some harm, rarely at the level of the accusation. sometimes they say they tried to have a process but it didn’t work, or they were denied. who knows what they mean by process, who knows if the accuser was ready for a process, who knows what actually happened between them, the relational context of the instance or pattern of harm, who knows?

the truth about sexual assault and rape and patriarchy and white supremacy and other abuses of power is that we are swimming in them, in a society that has long normalized them, and that they often play out intimately.

the truth is, sometimes it takes a long time for us to realize the harm that has happened to us.

and longer to realize we have caused harm to others.

the truth is, it isn’t unusual to only realize harm happened in hindsight, with more perspective and politicization.

but there’s more truth, too.

the additional truth is, right now we have the time.

the additional truth is, even though we want to help the survivor, we love obsessing over and punishing ‘villains’. we end up putting more of our collective attention on punishing those accused of causing harm than supporting and centering the healing of survivors.

the additional truth is, we want to distance ourselves from those who cause harm, and we are steeped in a punitive culture which, right now, is normalizing a methodology of ‘punish first, ask questions later’, which is a witch trial, lynching, master’s tool methodology. which, because we are in the age of social media, we now have a way to practice very publicly.

supremacy is the original pandemic, an infectious disease that quietly roots into each of us. we might have supremacy due to race, citizenship, gender, class, ableism, age, access, fame, or other areas where we feel justified to cause harm without consequence, sometimes without even realizing we’ve caused harm, because supremacy is a numbing and narrowing disease.

i want us to let go of the narrowness of innocence, widen our understanding of how harm moves through us. i want us to see individual acts of harm as symptoms of systemic harm, and to do what we can to dismantle the systems and get as many of us free as possible.

often a call out comes because the disease has reached an acute state in someone, is festering in hiding, is actively causing harm. i want us to see the difference between the human and the disease, to see what we are afraid of, in others and in ourselves, and discern a path that actually addresses the root of our justified fears.

this is not a case against call outs – there is absolutely a need for certain call outs – when power is greatly imbalanced and multiple efforts have been made to stop ongoing harm, when someone accused of harm won’t participate in community accountability processes, the call out is a way of pulling an emergency brake.

but it should be a last option. the consequences of being called out at this point are extremely dire and imprecise. the presence of infiltration in our movements is so documented and prevalent. call outs are an incredible modern tool for those who are not committed to movements to use against those having impact.

right now calling someone out online seems like first/only option for a lot of people.

i can’t help but wonder who benefits from movements that engage in public infighting, blame, shame and knee jerk call outs? i can’t help but see the state grinning, gathering all the data it needs, watching us weaken ourselves. meanwhile, the harm continues.

i don’t find it satisfying, and i don’t think it is transformative to publicly call people out for instant consequences with no attempt at a conversation, mediation, boundary setting or a community accountability process with a limited number of known participants.

it doesn’t make sense to say ‘believe all survivors’ if we don’t also remember that most of us are survivors, which includes most people who cause harm. what we mean is we are tired of being silenced, dismissed, powerless in our pain, hurt over and over. yes. but being loud is different from being whole, or even being heard, being cared for, being comforted, being healed. being loud is different from being just. being able to destroy is different from being able to generate a future where harm isn’t happening all around us.

we are terrified of how widespread and active harm is, and it makes us want to point the finger and quickly remove those we can identify as bad. we want to protect each other from those who cause harm.

many of us seem to worry that if we don’t immediately jump on whatever mob wagon has pulled up in our dms, that we will be next to be called out, or called a rape apologist or a white person whisperer or an internalized misogynist, or just disposed of for refusing to group think and then group act. online, we perform solidarity for strangers rather than engaging in hard conversations with comrades.

we are fearful of taking the time to be discerning, because then we may have to recognize that any of us could be seen as harmdoers. and when we are discerning, when we do step up to say wait, let’s get understanding here, we risk becoming the new target, viewed as another accomplice to harm instead of understood as a comrade in ending harm.

perhaps, most dangerously, we are, all together now, teetering on the edge of hopelessness. collective suicidal ideation, pandemic burnout, 45-in-office burnout, climate catastrophe burnout and other exhaustions have us spent and flailing, especially if we are caught in reactive loops (which include the culture of multiple daily call outs) instead of purposeful adaptations. some of us are losing hope, tossed by the tornado, ungrounded and uprooted by the pace of change, seeking something tangible we can do, control, hold, throw away.

the kind of callouts we are currently engaging in do not necessarily think about movements’ needs as a whole. movements need to grow and deepen, we need to ‘transform ourselves to transform the world’*, to ‘be transformed in the service of the work’**. movements need to become the practice ground for what we are healing towards, co-creating. movements are responsible for embodying what we are inviting our people into. we need the people within our movements, all socialized into and by unjust systems, to be on liberation paths. not already free, but practicing freedom every day. not already beyond harm, but accountable for doing our individual and internal work to end harm, which includes actively working to gain awareness of the ways we can and have harmed each other, and ending those cycles in ourselves and our communities.

knee jerk call outs say: those who cause harm cannot change. they must be eradicated. the bad things in the world cannot change, we must disappear the bad until there is only good left.

but one layer under that, what i hear is:

we cannot change.

we do not believe we can create compelling pathways from being harm doers to being healed, to growing.

we do not believe we can hold the complexity of a gray situation.

we do not believe in our own complexity.

we can only handle binary thinking: good/bad, innocent/guilty, angel/abuser, black/white, etc.

it is a different kind of suicide, to attack one part of ourselves at a time. cancer does this, i have seen it – oh it’s in the throat, now it’s in the lungs, now it’s in the bones. when we engage in knee jerk call outs and instant consequences with no process, we become a cancer unto ourselves, unto movements and communities. we become the toxicity we long to heal. we become a tool of harm when we are trying to be, and i think meant to be, a balm.

oh unthinkable thoughts. now that i have thought you, it becomes clear to me that all of you are rooted in a singular longing: i want us to want to live.

i want us to want to live in this world, in this time, together.

i want us to love this planet and this species, at this time.

i want us to see ourselves as larger than just individuals randomly pinging around in a world that will never care for us.

i want us to see ourselves as a murmuration of creatures who are, as far as we know right now, unique in all the universe. each cell, each individual body, itself a unique part of this unique complexity.

i want us not to waste the time we have together.

i want us to look at each other with the eyes of interdependence, such that when someone causes harm, we find the gentle parent inside of us who can use a voice of accountability, while also bringing curiosity – ‘why did you cause harm? do you know? do you know other options? apologize.’ that we can set boundaries that don’t require the disappearance of other survivors. that we can act towards accountability with the touch of love. that when someone falls behind, we can use a parent’s voice of discipline while also picking them up and carrying them for a while if needed.

i want us to adapt from systems of oppression and punishment to systems of uplifting and transforming.

i want us to notice that this is a moment when we need to choose life, not surrender to the incompetence and hopelessness of our national leadership.

i want us to be discerning.

i want our movement to feel like a vibrant, accountable space where causing harm does not mean you are excluded immediately and eternally from healing, justice, community or belonging.

i want us to grow lots and lots of skill at holding the processes by which we mend the wounds in our communities and ourselves.

i want satisfying consequences that actually end cycles of harm, generate safety and deepen movement.

i want us to hold Black humanity to the highest degree of protection, even when we have caused harm. i want us to see each other’s trauma-induced behavior as ancestral and impermanent, even as we hold each other accountable.

i want us to be particularly rigorous about holding complexity and accountability well for Black people in our movement communities who are already struggling to keep our heads above water and build trust and move towards life under the intersecting weights of white supremacy, racialized capitalism, police brutality, philanthropic competition culture, and lack of healing support.

i never want to see us initiate processes for Black accountability where those who are not invested in Black life can see it, store it, weaponize it. replace Black in that sentence with any other oppressed peoples and i still feel the same way. it is not strategic, and, again, it is rarely satisfying.

i want us to ask who benefits from our hopelessness, and to deny our oppressors the satisfaction of getting to see our pain. i want them to wonder how we foment such consistent and deep solidarity and unlearning. i want our infiltrators to be astounded into their own transformations, having failed to tear us apart.

i want us to acknowledge that the supremacy and suicidal ideation and hopelessness and harm are everywhere, and make moves that truly allow us to heal into wholeness.

because against all odds in space and time? we. are. winning.

we are winning in spite of the tsunami of pressures against us. we are moving towards life in spite of everything that wants us to give up.

we in movement must learn to choose life even in conflict, composting the bad behaviors while holding the beating hearts.

choosing life includes asking:
do i have the necessary information to form an opinion?
do i have the time to seek understanding?
what does the survivor need?
did a conversation/process already happen?
is a conversation/process possible?
how do we be abolitionist while gaining accountability here?
who benefits from me doubting that movement can hold this?
who could hold this well?
what will end the cycle of harm here?

we must learn to do this before there is no one left to call out, or call we, or call us.

….

thank you deeply to shira hassan and malkia devich cyril for loving feedback on this piece.

* grace lee Boggs
** mary hooks

care for yourself and everything else (transmission)

(day 29 #pandowrimo prompt: Humans have broken the original agreements and we are at a crossroads. How do we restore the balance?
@elotedream)

everything is teacher, virus too is teacher, is practice ground, sickness, death, we all die, we all need practice. this virus has been a practice of coming into awareness of our collective selfishness. (I am not selfish you are selfish…) we can see the inward focus in others, but mostly feel ourselves to be good (I was trying to be as good, as thoughtful, as selfless as a saint, but I failed). trying and just failing to care enough for others, that’s us. the awareness of how selfish and self-focused we’ve been, when it comes (detonates from another’s mouth, or in a moment of stillness), can make us deny, panic, freeze, spiral, disappear.

selfishness is the contagion.

with this virus, the self falls away, or the selfishness is unveiled.

it doesn’t matter if you alone tend towards health, the virus will hitch a ride on your breath and collar to those who can’t protect themselves.

it doesn’t matter if you want to quarantine, your job is essential to others, or your big boss is unwilling or unable to give you the time off. or you need the money not to stop for a second. you need groceries, and you need to bring your kids.

it doesn’t matter if you wear a mask and bleach everything and wash your hands raw, that one coughing maskless person has no idea what six feet look like.

and even if, even if we’re all fine, if we all recover, if we all survive – we have to acknowledge (in spite of all evidence that we do not care) that the earth is thriving in our containment, our stillness.

our connection to everything is undeniable. i never knew the language of the original instruction but now I wonder if it’s written in each thing’s code, ‘here is how you be’. when i listen to my bones the instruction is care: care for this body and all other bodies, care generates harmony and balance, care for boundaries without borders. care for each connection, and if it must end, care for the ending. care for communities and have as many as you can care for. care for this planet with how you pet, feed, water, eat, till, plant, and harvest. if it is too challenging for you personally to care for strangers, accept your limitation, and just care for family, you define it, you define who you care for. care generally for futures, or specifically for your own future and the futures of those you can care for.

and you can be single and solitary and solo and silent and still be caring, still relinquish selfishness, maybe that isolation is your deepest care, maybe you need that quiet to heal enough to care again, maybe in this moment you need the care, and it is caring to let others care for you (did you know that caring feels like a burden only when it isn’t shared?) – the more people who care, the more joy, the more we are able to make use of this existence, which came with instructions, which everyone got, and some forgot, and some never learned how to hear, but nonetheless this is how it works: together.

capitalism IS a conspiracy

capitalism IS a conspiracy.

it works because it’s out in the open, and there are so many ways to be greedy that all of those benefiting from the conspiracy don’t have to coordinate. in fact, it feeds off conflict – intimate, electoral, corporate, and especially the conflicts that proliferate in moments of disaster.

you don’t need to add more once you truly understand how deep that rabbit hole goes.
follow the money. ask yourself who benefits from a confused and suspicious people?

to resist the conspiracy, spend less time consuming the internet, and more time developing relationships with real people with whom you share the tangible (shelter, transportation, masks, medicine, groceries, care, childcare) and the intangible (listening, loving, dreaming, trusting, laughter, grief). follow and respect the workers, the doctors, the scientists, the caretakers, those who call back to us from the front lines with strategies and requests for help and adaptation (as opposed to those who cower behind us and tell us to trust nothing, and not to adapt for collective safety).

capitalists are absolutely looking at how to benefit from the tragedy we are currently in – medical supplies, technology control, security, borders, data access, benefiting from an economy that crashes and has to rebuild.

we have to be looking at how we deepen our relationships to hold each other through this, claim power for our communities, and be accountable with those we most love and want to protect and be with.

two places for good reading on this:

Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein
@movementgeneration web page

please place more suggestions (clear, accessible analysis and thinking) in the comments if you have them.

suggestions so far

Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit
Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein
Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff
I, Coronavirus – http://www.emergencenetwork.org/icoronavirus/
Arundhati Roy

shadows

day 12 #pandowrimo prompt:

How do we shape change from a place of turmoil and grief?

A) How do we deconstruct and disarm despair: what does despair take from us and how do we do the shadow work to replace what is stolen?

(what does it look like on the other side of shadow work?)

@ky_magdalene, @sea_witch_love, amb

…..

did I ever tell you
how everything about humanity makes me
so tender
I could be weeping all the time
my eyes see all the darkness
the shadows crawl across the floor
peek from the corners
laugh when I’m laughing
counting it down
they will take it back with the next sentence

I create troughs
threading away from my heart
spilling down my limbs to pulse out
sole of foot, palm of hand
all wide for the ground
in this way, I can open my eyes
since I was a newborn
people have asked me for direction
and I have almost always felt which way to point
away from me, away, away from me

I hear something coming
which is asking me to receive
to stop letting things go through me
to reawaken the black hole at my center
the part powered by what we lose
what we grieve, and by longing
to reach is to live, to reach is sacred
be attached to aliveness
and nothing else
trust: when life is done, it will let you go

a telepathic communion with dino

amb: dino?

dino?

i’m trying telepathy to reach you because a lot is going on that i could use some ancient insight on. and frankly i don’t know when i’ll be allowed in the chicago airport again.

dino: i’m here.

amb: wow! wow i feel you!

dino (smiling): i’m always available. but if i explained how, it might mess up our whole thing.

amb: like i told santa, i choose the magic.

dino: every time. so. are you here to tell me where the masses have gone?

amb: you noticed?

dino: i almost exclusively see in patterns these days. the river is a stream, the stream becoming a drizzle.

me: there’s a virus. it passes with no symptoms, hides inside us for two weeks, and it’s bigger than our healthcare system.

dino: nefarious. everywhere?

amb: at first it wasn’t, but now it really is. so we’re all staying home to try and slow it down while we find cures, vaccines, face masks, ventilators. thousands of people are dying.

dino: i’m so sorry to hear that.

amb, hesitant: is it our asteroid, dino?

dino, pausing a moment: you’re really scared, huh.

amb: terrified.

dino: but…isn’t this your thing? change, apocalypse? the collapse of capitalism? right relationship to the earth?

amb: totally. but i don’t want to lose the people i love. and i can’t make everyone stay home – i’ve tried. and i don’t want to die yet.

dino takes a deep breath.

dino: it’s hard when death comes in big waves. so much grief all at once.

amb: and for what? earth is getting this brief moment of respite, respiration. but so many bosses are still endangering their workers and plotting ways to capitalize this crisis. is this the end of capitalism, or the beginning of global authoritarian rule, or extinction, or liberation? what are we meant to learn?

dino: woah. hey now. it generally doesn’t help to make too much meaning of things that are still unfolding. from within the storm, vision is limited. and you, my friend, you and your species are in the storm.

amb: but deeper meaning helps me get thru the hard parts of life.

dino: hmmm.

amb: i need something to control. a narrative will do in absence of order, safety. i think i’ll become useless without meaning. the grief. the fear, anxiety, suspicion, sinophobia. the blur of my empathetic self feeling everything. i need something to root in to.

dino: i feel your chaos. perhaps instead of meaning, it’s time to revisit destiny.

amb: “the destiny of earthseed is to take root amongst the stars.”

dino: mmmm!

amb: octavia butler wrote that.

dino: she was always nice to me.

amb: that’s amazing. i have been rethinking her destiny. or, our way of understanding it.

dino: say more.

amb: i always thought it purely meant space travel. but she struggled with sequels, because no world she found in her imagination was as right for us as earth. and on earth, we are amongst the stars, here and now. this is a perfect home spinning in space. we may even be celestial to someone else.

dino, mulling it over: hmmmmmmm.

amb: i think we need to root here. re-root. choose here.

dino: perhaps. or maybe all of this, this way of being – on earth or in space – just isn’t your destiny. meaning, maybe human destiny isn’t the most important thing.

amb, sad eyes: now you say more.

dino: i often think that we are all experiments of an earth figuring out her destiny. she likes living things. she likes sentient creatures that love and make family and eat. in our experiment, she learned she wanted a species that could look up to the stars, defend her from asteroids.

amb: oh wow. so…our experiment could be teaching her to not let evil people accumulate all the power and money?

dino, chuckling: perhaps.

amb: or?

dino: perhaps it’s just time to see how what you call evil, what i call wrong relationship, how that can spread, can disconnect a species from its future.

amb: right. it’s like the virus itself, invisible. but making the wrong structures and systems and beliefs so visible.

dino: we can never teach how evil a thing is better than it will show us itself, with time.

amb: but it’s in all of us. or most, to varying degrees. this i, i, i, exceptionalism.

dino: hm.

amb: sorry. i want to let in new perspective. it’s just that all the problems are so big. and intertwined. and i’m supposed to be one of the ‘hopeful’ ones.

dino: what was that?

amb: what?

dino: that…tone. you sound…

amb: sharp? ugh. sorry – that happens when i’m trying to be funny but i feel something else. sad. scared. grief.

dino: ah humans. tone is the tip of your internal icebergs.

quiet together for a while.

dino: tell me something. can you imagine being sad and scared and still feeling hopeful?

amb: it’s hard.

dino: can i offer something?

amb: please.

dino: it’s not an asteroid.

amb, shoulders dropping: oh.

dino: hope, hopefulness, that’s the realm of the survivors. it’s not too late for y’all. grief shows us what we love, what we most want to protect. it swallows everything extraneous. and so much of what you love is still here. and tomorrow is another miraculous opportunity to change, to protect it.

amb: dang dino.

dino: ha. i guess i’ve been a little scared too. i don’t want you to give in, give up.

amb, hugging dino’s telepathic neck for a good cry.

dino, gently, into amb’s telepathic hair: we’re all rooting for you, you know. all the extinct ones. we’re all at your backs. you humans have so much beauty in you.

amb, sniffly: there is so much superhumanity and kindness and humility and change happening. and humor. and dancing online across all borders. and caretaking. and new kinds of honesty. and heroic communal isolation. and choosing to protect the future.

dino: very good. that’s life. grieve like the trees in october. but don’t forget you are nature, and spring is certain.

amb: i am glad to know we can be together in this way.

dino: me too. isolated is one perspective of this moment. deeply connected is another.

amb: love you dino.

dino: love you too.

On Rushing Toward Apocalypse (with Aja Taylor)

a conversation on the possibilities of this moment, with Aja Taylor *

Aja: DC, MD and VA have now all declared states of emergency. Italy’s death toll has officially surged past 1,000. COVID-19 has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, and yet – I am on the edge of my seat with barely-contained wonderment. My 3rd grade self – obsessed both with epidemics and dystopian fiction – is positively mystified by what we are seeing across the globe.

It isn’t the spread of the disease that mystifies me, but rather the opportunities and truths being unearthed in this very moment.

amb: i am on a plane from italy to the u.s. via paris, having canceled a beautifully planned two-month journey through europe. i was in tuscany for the last two weeks, during which the word ‘quarantine’ became a new undercurrent rhythm in my ears, a heartbeat. i’m on sabbatical, which will show in my unspooled writing voice (Aja will be more direct so feel free to skip me, she says it all). i’ve been trying to intentionally avoid the news, the triggering, election year ughs. my friends and family have gently screamed questions at me while waving digital newspapers and, of course, supporting my boundaries and my agency. (love smirking)

and when i turned to face it, COVID-19, i felt ashamed because i’d delayed so long, and because my speculative mind activated instantly, my emergent mind, my apocalypse dreamer self, feeling the familiarity of a moment i’d never lived, but prepared for. ashamed because during any thought of possibility, just north of me, grandparents were dying in hospital hallways.

i don’t believe in justified collateral damage, and while i love the vulcan quote “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one,” i actually don’t believe it, because i can’t say that many and one are different things…i highly and publicly suspect we are part of one creature, one system. we just don’t know the scale: are we a cell in the earth body? is earth the cell in a universe body? are we all the light beams of a god body?

nor do i think we can argue that any life is less miraculous than others, though we overlook some of the most important ones. twyla tharp says something like ‘destiny is a function of persistent parenting’, and i would add grandparenting, eldering, teaching, community-ing. think about the future inventors, storytellers, organizers, alien’s life partners, who fundamentally needed the encouragement of a certain elder or immune compromised teacher, lost because people didn’t know in time that they’d been weaponized with an efficient killer, couldn’t stay safe.

i offer this because the conversation we are about to have doesn’t presume that the lives of those who survive are more precious, worth more, than the lives of those who don’t survive this, or who suffer greatly in this. they aren’t giving their lives for us – we have to hold the complexity of senseless loss and undeniable possibility.

because this? this is already apocalypse.

Aja: This could be the very apocalypse we’ve been waiting for.

Apocalypse. Rooted in the Greek words “apo,” meaning “un,” and “kaluptein,” meaning “to cover,” apocalypse is generally regarded as something terrifying and negative. A life ending event. But as my Emergent Strategy “Creating New Possibilities” group explored this past summer in the Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute, what if apocalypse was indeed an ending – but to all of the things we actually needed to end in order to sustain life on this planet?

amb: i’ve been saying ‘things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered’. it’s the age of COVID-19, already bigger than the intimate reach of 9/11, the Titanic, and many man made and natural disasters we’ve defined eras by. we are in history, in an apocalypse moment in history.

Aja: At its etymological core, apocalypse means to uncover – and COVID-19 has uncovered so damn much, hasn’t it?

amb: so much, including for a lot of people just how privileged and/or precarious we have been. those already struggling in this system are often shamed into hiding our financial, physical, mental and emotional challenges. we didn’t know how bad our healthcare system was cause we were good, or we were so overwhelmed by navigating it that we couldn’t look up and notice the patterns.

we didn’t realize how quickly borders can change, and standards for who is allowed to move and who isn’t, especially if our parents were born here. now more of us see that we can all end up on the wrong side, classified as a threat overnight.

and we’ve been too ashamed to show the precarity of our own bank accounts. we didn’t realize how many people in the richest nation in the world are living check to check. people are getting sick because many of us are more terrified of the proximity of losing income than risking our health and that of our families, communities and clients (i was so disappointed to land in the u.s. and, in addition to zero screening or questions about my health anywhere, to see all the airport restaurants open, all those exposed workers with no protection).

it’s a lot to take in. but it’s all about what we do in this unveiling. i’ve been dreaming that we ‘hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil’. see both the wild wrongness in so many of our current structures, and the wild possibilities if we apply our visioning, organizing, earthling selves to the conversation and pattern seeking.

the first pattern shift i noticed was the dropping emissions as industry in key production areas slows, stops. the organizers i serve have been pushing for corporate emission reduction, and getting “no no no, impossible, maybe ? of that in twice the time, no even if we’ll all be dead it’s more important that 1% of us experience excess right now.”

COVID-19 comes and emissions are down 25%, and that’s just the beginning?

Aja: Everyone deserves a place to live, regardless of their ability to pay. Evicting someone because they cannot afford to pay is inhumane. And yet, capitalist forces have persuaded us that in order for society to function, people must pay or be put out. COVID-19 comes and suddenly, the inhumanity of evictions becomes politically expedient, and more people now know that if they wanted to, the government could absolutely step in and halt evictions.

amb: behavior shift can actually happen very quickly once we collectively decide to do it. relearning en masse how to wash our hands. i was part of a group in the rome airport who learned what one meter felt like, the social distance encouraged everywhere now. it was taught directly, impersonally – “not that, this. too close! good.” boundaries held collectively immediately relaxed my shoulders. it was so much harder landing in france and the u.s. where very few people seemed aware of personal space. i want that mindful level of collective boundary norming and consent for all bodies all the time, against street harassment and racism, for recycling and dogpoopscooping and helping each other.

Aja: Protecting workers makes sense. Making sure workers have adequate paid time off is good for people, good for a thriving workforce and good for our communal health. “We can’t afford that!” the business community lined up to testify. COVID-19 comes and suddenly across the country we are seeing lawmakers and businesses get creative to make sure that people can work from home, and even that hourly workers and folks who can’t telework have ways to have the time off and still recover wages.

amb: i am most fascinated by how much small personal bravery is emerging. my group text threads are full of people sharing the bold initiating moves they’ve been making in their workplaces, with their parents, at their gyms, kids’ schools, with friends.

we are either vectors of doom or safety in this.

it’s also brave when people who ignored or ridiculed the response to COVID-19 for a while finally let themselves be moved by new data and start helping with containment and slowing it down.

and at least in movement spaces it looks like we’re starting to listen to people who have been trying to teach us collective pathways for a while.

it’s also time for organic redistribution – those who have more than enough are going to need to move funds to help artists, freelancers, chronically ill, immigrant, jobless, houseless and other economically vulnerable communities. i am excited by how quickly needs and pivots are being understood and activated, how many people i know who are thinking collectively.

Aja: Making sure people with disabilities can have equitable access to convenings and workplaces makes sense. But our disabled siblings hear time and time again how “teleconferencing technology is so expensive!” and “it’s too hard to figure out—we’ll think about it for next year.” COVID-19 comes, and now more people know that yes, companies and organizations can indeed make spaces accessible, and choose to prioritize cost over cause.

amb: i know there is tragedy here, unfolding, the scale of which we cannot, will never, measure in terms of heartache. but i’m also aware of us moving towards things we have needed to move towards. how do we widen the space within us for the grief and wonder? fear and vision? the surrender, and the creativity, the relief, the humor, the possibility?

this is an opportunity to stop trying to ‘cling to the shore,’ as the hopi elder prophesied. say the shore is our crisis level individualism, and the river is interdependence. we don’t really know what intentional post-capitalist interdependence looks like at our current national, much less global, scale. it’s still time to push off, go forward, into that unknown, holding each other, in pairs, in circles.

now is a time to learn about relinquishing boredom. this is a time for generating life by rooting where we are. and learning intimacy as a survival tool, because we need to be able to communicate our realities, needs and wants – a level of communication that previously often happened only through proximity, pheromones and subtle facial shifts.

the overlay of all of this is deepening connection towards a right relationship to the earth.

i’m also excited to start using the vulcan “live long and prosper” hand greeting in place of hugs or fist bumps.

Aja: As an organizer, this uncovering – this apocalypse – is one I feel like running toward. It pushes us to be sharper, to contemplate organizing our folks through chaos and disorganization, and presents so many opportunities to politicize and contextualize for our folks. The things we fight for are not just right, but POSSIBLE. And I don’t know about y’all, but this election cycle especially had me feeling so depleted. So impossible. So hopeless.

amb: demoralized! dejected! apoplectic! watching us divide, forget what matters and divide.

Aja: And then COVID-19 came, and reminded me that the world we are fighting for is nigh. Now is not the time to pump the brakes or abandon hope. The world we are fighting for is just on the other side of apocalypse.

amb: asé and hallelujah

* Aja Taylor is a community organizer, fiction-loving facilitator of mischief and meetings. She enjoys good food, analyzing birth charts, octopuses and thinking about how sexy consent is. She is also Director of Advocacy and Organizing at Bread for the City and one of the co-founders of Two Brown Girls Consulting Cooperative, both based in DC.

Additional Resources for Facing Coronavirus/Covid19

ah loves, turns out it’s not easy to take a sabbatical during a global apocalyptic event. in my attempt to stay away from news, work, stress, and distraction, i found myself a little rural hideaway which, who could have guessed it, is now in a quarantine zone. i am fine, supported, connected, stocked, staying calm and solo and washing my hands in that near-obsessive way virgoes are prone to do naturally.

but there’s no escaping this, even with reduced contact – friends, family, media, strangers in the grocery store…we are interdependent and it shows so deeply in moments we are asked to stay apart for our own good.

i keep thinking – should i write about this? and, conversely, am i really writing about anything else? every bit of fiction and song emerging from me swerves into the territory of connection, safety across generations, virus, right relationship. i am writing about this, but there’s also so much that i and others have already written and spoken that might be helpful for the human, land, spiritual, community, movement, familial, network, and/or society side of this virus at this moment.

the science, the protocols, i leave that to science and government: wash your hands, stay home, think collectively.

and here are some resources that might help you think about where to be, how to be, and how to see the possibilities even in this moment, how to move towards life.

1. Octavia’s Brood.

over the past few days as i have had to consider where to be, i was comforted by Dani McClain’s excellent story Homing Instinct and then remembered how Mia Mingus pointed to society shaped by those with chronic illness and disability in Hollow and how Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha reminded us we can travel without traveling in Children Who Could Fly. these texts feel relevant now, as we would do so well to learn from those who survive toxic exposure daily and know about being safe and connected in vulnerable bodies.

i am challenged anew by the implications of my own story The River, in which earth moves to protect herself and those who love her. only time will tell how this moment will impact our relationship to earth, but early reports of reduced emissions appear to be a silver lining to this tragedy.

here is a real-time resource leah just passed on to me for mutual aid and survival!

2. Emergent Strategy.

change is constant, be like water. we are used to being a rushing river pounding through every obstacle. now we see there is danger in that endless rapid flow and we need to find a place to pool deeply and be still and let time cleanse us in its way. i have received messages from people who are finding a first or re-read of the book useful in this moment.

a few bits to highlight:

* “transform yourself to transform the world”, grace lee boggs’ wisdom is literal right now. this virus doesn’t stop because of blame, pointing at other people’s faults, or races/ethnicities. it only stops, or slows, because each individual increases their own accountability to the collective. people have suggested different songs for hand washing time, to help stay in the sink long enough to do an adequate job. i found this bit of magic with the ‘fear is the mind killer’ guidance from Dune that i love. i am also often just saying a little universe prayer – “with this handwashing i align with the universe, with this handwashing i wage love, with this handwashing i care for [here i insert the names of elders and compromised immune systems i cherish].” i am transforming my own behaviors through practice and repetition.

* there is a conversation in the room that only these people at this time can have…there are conversations that will only happen because you initiate them, lives that will be saved because you risked being the awkward one to ask ‘how are you adapting safety protocol in response to coronavirus?’ i have a text thread of dear ones who are sharing news with each other and one had to push thru the resistance of her elder family members (our elders have seen so much – how do we honor their experience and dignity and still acknowledge that this virus is hungry for them, specifically?). another just changed the safety trajectory of her pilates studio. and in another friend circle a european book tour was canceled. this is no time to politely drift along with the herd, this is the time to ask direct questions and generate unique community solutions in conversation.

* there’s always someone already working on the problem. i think of all of my patient friends who have navigated chemical sensitivity for years. or those with lyme, gluten intolerance, fibromyalgia, cancer, aids…who in our communities must we protect, yes, but who has been surviving collective cluelessness and obstinance, who must we now listen to?

* beware of haters (and infiltrators). here we are, figuring out massive issues of safety during a fraught election year in the u.s. under a government hungry for tighter borders. this virus may change how voting happens, and how communication around the election happens – if we are all dependent on the internet to contact each other, campaign, even vote, there’s a lot of uncharted and quicksandish territory. our electoral system is dysfunctional on a good day. and, this collective experience will impact what people seek from leadership. and, the outcomes of this election will effect the future of this virus and how other similar global threats are handled. it is not a time for petty, haterish, divisive behavior. it is a time to be in heightened awareness of infiltrators, instigators, agitators. beware the lone wolf, beware the critic who isn’t oriented on any solution, beware the social media poster who has few followers and fewer posts, beware time sucks, red herrings, and vapors posing as people. it’s easy to get sucked in. liberate your attention back to the much more important and difficult work of finding political alignment and righteous compromise amongst the people you know and live next door to, your relatives, people who care about you.

* pay attention to patterns. what is being detoxified from the soil? what is migrating? who is in drought, in flood, in peril, in privilege? i am definitely influenced by having just finished The Overstory by Richard Powers but…ask the trees what they think this virus is about. what to learn, now?

* localize your attention. what grows near you? who grows it? how can you secure resources together vs stockpiling individually and combatively?

* and, as aways, what’s in your go-bag?

3. Pleasure Activism

right now we are getting to experience the unexpected expected. we all knew contagion was coming and have made countless entertainments about it…but when, how, from where?

it may seem counterintuitive, but i am putting my attention on the pleasures of quarantine, aka ‘if introverts ran the world’. what to do when you can’t go somewhere else and be around mad people to do it?

obviously there is a way of working with less distraction when isolated, which those of us liberated from offices already know to be a pajama-infused delight.

i have made a list of additional recent pleasures i opted to fully experience instead of panicking – washing my hands in warm water, writing, reading, new kinds of orgasm, cooking, painting, slow yoga in the sun, going out in the yard to observe my local ecosystem during the day (which often involves attending to what is usually the periphery – the sound on the edge of hearing, motion on the edge of sight) (and which, during my writing of this post, included watching and hearing two bumblebees mating in the air!), and at night listening to owls, porcupine, wind, river, traffic, life. catching up on shows, extended and deeper video chatting with loved ones. inventory (this may just be me but i like assessing that i have enough), being topless outside, creating and executing rituals. getting high, or, lately, getting that other high that comes from not getting high, but getting present.

i encourage you, whether you’ve already been quarantined or it’s coming soon, to at least attempt the mental emotional embodied exercise of not fighting it, but finding the pleasure and connection potential in it. how can it increase your freedom to have your routine disrupted? how can it allow for more intentional and reverent interdependence? don’t just think about where you will get your food and water, also map out where you will get your togetherness, your touch, your laughter, your joy.

4. how to survive the end of the world

in the years of doing this podcast with my sister, we have had many conversations that feel relevant to this moment.

our conversation with Sister-Doctor Alexis Pauline Gumbs on breath, among other things – we need to practice breathing deeply thru a respiratory invasion. our conversations with Toshi Reagon on prophecy and responsibility. and with Angel Kyodo Williams and Lama Rod Owens on being still. with Mariame Kaba on justice – because this virus is largely spreading by human error, and how do you address the harm caused by someone not washing their hands, the sickness and death caused by humans who didn’t mean to hurt anyone? and the conversation with Siwatu Salama-Ra, how to generate freedom within when externally contained? and, of course, our talk with Michelle Mascarenas-Swan of Movement Generation, about the larger systems at play in this great turning. plus roughly every other conversation.

5. generative somatics.

this is a time to get more curious about your body, your health, your patterns. listen to your gut – the other day i was ten minutes out from home heading to the store when i realized i’d left my hand sanitizer on the table after checking if it has enough alcohol in it. with almost no thought, my body found the next spot to turn around (i am way down a single lane dirt road) and went back to get it. i used it four times while out and was so grateful my body knew i needed it. my body steers me away from people with sniffles and coughs, processing information faster than my brain can generate a logic for me. if it’s hard to hear and trust your body, get into this centering practice from generative somatics genius Sumitra Rajkumar, let repeated centering awaken you. there’s time.

so. visionary fiction, emergent strategy, pleasure activism, and surviving apocalypse. attention liberation, somatics, right relationship. listening, adapting, surrendering.

may this serve as it needs to. i am with you, of you, and you are of me. let’s do this transition well.