i am laying here with a jellyfish sting fading on my left foot, thinking about the speed of responses and reactions.
i was in the ocean off the coast of south carolina with family when one of the babies shouted out in pain and dismay and started trying to run away from their body. something that felt like a bunch of needles had touched them in multiple places. before long several of us had experienced it and realized it was likely jellyfish. in a moment of humor that feels very me, i was mid-sentence casting a protection spell around us, and as i spoke the word “tentacle”, one wrapped around my wrist and i descended into curses.
we got out of the water.
some research showed that in august and september this is common, all kinds of jellyfish can be in these waters, and a particular jellyfish called a sea nettle will be mating and traveling in massive numbers called blooms. storms and winds bring them into shore where they tumble with sea grass and get left on the morning sand. the sting faded after about fifteen minutes, leaving a tentacled cluster of redness on the skin.
i thought of the orcas and pilot whales and wondered if this was another oceanic boundary setting, or just an instance of unfortunate timing. i felt resentful for the lack of signage or warning – this is clearly a seasonal pattern, why were we left to experience it as a personal surprise?
in an act of either foolishness or resilience, we returned to the beach the next day and had a mostly great time. the ocean is my happy place, i sang whale songs and swam with my nibblings and bounced in the waves and felt that delicious blessing of blasting hot sun above with cool water moving up my thighs, elbows, and then, with a gasp, over the shoulders.
the adults in our group wanted the kids to experience the magic of saltwater floating and waves and awe and beach. we knew the sting was possible, increased in shallower water, and seemed to be from tentacles that had gotten disconnected from their jellyfish and were just auto responding, biologically, to threats. we kind of shrugged our way into paying the cost of a few more stings. the kids kept us focused on playing and they fell in love with the sea.
as i was leaving the ocean on day two though, my foot came in contact with something larger, and more painful – an intact jellyfish. a humbling experience of pain that left me breathless and wordless for a bit.
the next day we found a pool to hang out in.
i’m sharing this because i’m thinking of the patterns and pace of response, and what they attend to. jellyfish are vulnerable creatures – these tentacles are a brilliant response – they don’t think in a way we would recognize, and they can make creatures much larger and more dangerous run away in pain. they can make themselves unapproachable.
i was thinking that being online these days can feel like swimming amongst barbed tentacles, even being asked to become a barbed tentacle – the current trend is instant response. in the face of any news, we are expected to produce an instant righteous reaction full of analysis, jokes and judgment, or calls to action.
sometimes that feels right to me. when i saw the news of the fires in maui i wanted to be part of an instant response, to be righteous in the sense of collective virtue – together we will help this beautiful place recover from devastation, with urgency, because it is in our values to be generous in solidarity. i trust the network of my beloveds to guide me to right analysis and action. i want to always be part of that kind of we.
sometimes it feels almost right. when i saw the montgomery riverboat brawl, i recoiled as i generally do when witnessing violence. i thought i was going to see another traumatic experience for a black person – and i did. but i also watched a man throw up his hat for help, and experience response in the form of a massive act of collective defense: self defense enacted by multiple bodies until the harm that was attempted – a large white family beating down a single black person for doing his job – was no longer possible.
i saw some responses about how hard it was to see women getting beaten down, and i realized that my gender lens wasn’t even on when i watched the video the first few times. i just saw, thru a racial lens, the imbalance of numbers. realizing there were women in the group of white people hitting this man made me reflect on who we see as vulnerable. the women were not vulnerable to me when they were mobbed up hitting and kicking this man. and mostly, as i rewatched the brawl, black women handled the white women and black men handled the white men. and mostly, i don’t want to see brawls. but i do want to see more collective defense. i am so tired of watching videos where the most we do is witness brutalization and murder.
i also noticed, watching the brawl, a sense of wholesomeness – it was a fight where no one got shot. in the flood of memes that have come out, people are imagining a world where folding chairs take the place of guns, and fights have a WWE sense of humor to them because even though there is violence, everyone lives to learn the lesson. while (i hope obviously) my preference is always a nonviolent resolution to conflict, i understand that we are not living in that universe yet. in this one, for our survival at a global level, we need to hone the art of collective defense, hone our capacity and willingness to even the odds and intervene on regressive and traumatic events, to balance defensive actions for the sake of survival. there are so many roles to play, including documentation, megaphone and communications.
and the multiracial delight and reenactments of the brawl plant a seed in my heart, that the collective defense we need can be a multiracial righteous response against facist white supremacy.
of course, i must attend to the places where the instant tentacle response doesn’t feel helpful. this isn’t new for my readers – when i hear accusations about people i admire, people my community and i have been uplifting, there is often an expectation for an instant opinion and an instant rejection or cancellation of someone whose work has moved me deeply, an expectation that doesn’t serve my values. recently i felt this with jonathan majors, and then with lizzo. there’s so many more of course, these just feel fresh.
in both cases i felt, in the public responses, a sense of collective desire to be righteous that was woven through with values i don’t align with.
i don’t believe black men or women are born monsters.
i don’t trust critiques laced with fatphobia.
i don’t believe people are irredeemable if they make mistakes, especially if they can stay in contact with curiosity.
i don’t believe all celebrities have harmful tendencies.
i don’t require the artists i love to be universally likable or have a permanently relatable personality.
i’ve seen all of that in the responses. and felt the rapid waves of (now familiar) salacious public glee to see someone fall. and feel the (also familiar) longing for a different space, a space for tenderness, for accessing the potential care evoked for these brilliant black artists, for compassion when we see black humanity.
i also don’t believe (black or any other) celebrities are saints. expecting neither halos nor harm, i just see humans; humans making mistakes on a large stage that i see other humans making with less of an audience. with these two its more tender, because we know they know what the loving path looks and feels like – they’ve shown it to us, even if it may have been to some degree a performance.
jonathan majors, in his best case scenario, was in a very toxic relationship. in the worst case scenario, he has been in a long period of unchecked aggressive and abusive behavior and is losing a bright future as a consequence. whatever went down with his ex appears to be a straw on a camel’s back. it makes me reflect on how and why we responded so ravenously to a seemingly gentle, evolved man who just happened to play an excellent villain – we want this duality…as long as its fantasy? i’m asking myself this question too, cause i was very loudly drooling for the soft pink floral tamed boxer kang phase.
regardless of what happens with the trial, the groundswell of colleague testimony that has come out indicates that there is something here for him to learn, or to unlearn.
with lizzo, i had to reach out to a trusted friend to help me understand the charges. her big girl sexuality is such a part of how she presents in the world, and i was struggling with what i was reading that felt like fatphobic judgment of that. my friend helped me see that the issue on the table is power dynamics. in the best case scenario, lizzo has disgruntled employees who got mad after being fired. in her worst case scenario, she was operating without crucial boundaries and protocols in place that protect her workers’ agency, ability to say no, and space to receive constructive feedback in a non-harmful way.
i know and have been that kind of leader at times, thinking we were all friends and peers when actually some of us were bosses, supervisors, or employees of others, which shaped what could be communicated, or how boundaries were set. being great at art (or…anything) and even having general love for humans doesn’t make any of us great bosses. i hope that the values that lizzo moves in the world align with her being able to learn what needs to be learned in this moment, to learn whatever the truth requires, whether it’s work boundaries or how to navigate a fickle, fatphobic public.
in these cases of instant public judgment, our barbed stings can be so intense that defensiveness is the only possible response. like, those jellyfish had me cursing marine life as i tried to get out of the water, even though i love both jellyfish and the sea. with time i could see the patterns and boundaries more clearly. i can care about the jellyfish, and myself, and my nibblings, and the ocean.
what humans have been gifted with is a capacity to reason that should give us more options for how we protect our own vulnerability.
what i keep wishing for us is a maturation of response tactics, to strengthen our range, at least amongst those of us who are abolitionists and survivors. i want to be able to move instantly to help each other recover, to move quickly to collective defense, and to move steadily in helping people see our/their harmful patterns – with a sense that where they/we have caused harm it is because they/we have either learned it, or survived it.
we can care about and believe those accusing people of harm, and still care about those accused of harm, and those who commit harm because we are part of a species where everyone is surviving and shaped by harmful systems. i think in this way, long term, we can depersonalize the way we respond to harm. instead of pointing at one person and deconstructing them as bad, we can look systemically at how individuals can and do uphold, advance or evolve our societal norms. perhaps we can even care our way beyond systemic harm…not as the only strategy, but as an underlying principle for how we change together.
octavia butler wrote, “kindness eases change.” its profound to experience compassion for the parts of ourselves that make mistakes, and be able to offer that to others – with consequences and boundaries as needed. perhaps only with that breadth of care can we all recover from the societal patterns that reduce us into the binary thinking in which everything that isn’t us is danger, deserving of attack or disposal, or into the public distancing behavior that we may think protects us from those who make mistakes, in order to hide our own growth areas.
i want to know how and when to enter the water. i want to know the cost, and respect the waves. and i believe we are here to learn exactly these lessons. i want to remember that the ocean is so much more than the sting.