Life Outside the Pillow Fort

It’s been a dense several weeks. Every month, half of my giving budget goes to recurring donations and half I give out depending on what’s going on in the world – it’s getting harder and harder to choose which cause or disaster relief effort most needs my money. Two years ago, before I started paying attention to the world outside of my bubble, I would’ve known about Las Vegas and Houston; I might’ve been peripherally aware of Puerto Rico and Mexico City, but I definitely wouldn’t have known about the Rohingya fleeing Myanmar (one of the causes I donated to last month) or so many other things happening, both in this country and around the world.

It’s insane to think that we’re almost a year out from the election. The scope of my life has changed so much in that year – it had already started changing; I’d already started paying more attention, learning more, venturing out from my virtual pillow fort of entertainment – but the election was the big turning point. The election was when I knew that paying attention and informing myself about what was going on wasn’t going to be enough – that being woke meant nothing to me if I didn’t actually do anything to try to help and make a difference. I believe I would’ve gotten there anyway; I was on that path, but the election sped me down the road in overdrive.

It’s not as if I don’t still spend time on entertainment – I do, but significantly less. I think, for me, just getting to that point where I was ready to truly face and own up to the fact that “hey, I really don’t need to spend this much time on my couch in front of the computer – I don’t need this much unwind time, my life isn’t that stressful, I’m exceptionally privileged, and disengaging this much isn’t doing me any favors either – so time to get off my ass and be more awesome” was the big hurdle. Because yes, I do love curling up on the couch with video games, and that’s an addiction that it’s way too easy for me to give too much of myself over to. I also have a tendency to be a homebody and to want to hole up in my nest with my husband and my cats and get into complete pillow fort mode. I’d been living my life that way, in one form or another, for a long, long time. I made a shift a while back and started spending regular time on physical fitness, which was an extremely positive change that I’ve kept up with for eightish years now, but I still wasn’t doing anything to make a difference to anyone outside of my bubble, or to continue learning in any meaningful way.

(A side note, to also make the point that there is still much I love about the entertainment world, Matthew and I went to see The My Little Pony Movie yesterday and Time To Be Awesome might be my new theme song.)

So here we are, October of 2017, and I’m committed to being more awesome. I also regularly feel like it can’t ever be enough, and have to balance it with the thought that we might all be careening towards blowing ourselves up anyway. Turns out that coming out of the pillow fort also makes it a lot harder to “LA LA LA LA LA” the concerns of the world away – and that’s a good thing. We all should be concerned, and angry, and any other number of emotions that shows we’re paying attention. I’m not letting those feelings consume or cripple me; I’m not letting them ruin my enjoyment of life – if anything I’m finding even more joy in life lately. I’ve met so many incredible people at Centro, I’ve had so many great experiences and fun times with them – and I’ve completely rediscovered an almost childlike level of intellectual curiosity. I am addicted to learning about the world and trying to understand everything that’s happening. (As a result I may have a little bit of a podcast problem … ) Learning Spanish is amazing, too – it’s hard AF, sometimes I can almost feel my brain cells pushing to expand, but I’m starting to see real progress and it’s a great feeling. Last week I went to my third Spanish Roundtable meetup at Centro – gatherings where people of all levels, from beginners to fluent speakers, get together to casually converse in Spanish – and I actually did some speaking as well as following more of the conversation than I ever had before.

I feel like I’m living life more fully than I had been for a long time. I’m not saying I wasn’t enjoying life before, but there were parts of myself that I let go dormant that are coming back now.

I’ve also been determined not to get derailed from my ongoing fitness goals – and I haven’t. I still get up at 5am before work to run. My Fitbit daily step goal is still 15k and I still meet that goal every. damned. day. (Seriously – there’s been one day in 2017 that I didn’t meet it, because the I-meet-my-goal-come-hell-or-high-water approach has been, for me, the silver bullet to consistency.) The shift in my life I made towards fitness years ago isn’t one I’m going to let go of – I’m not going to make progress in one part of my life and simultaneously abandon progress I’ve made in another.

However – with all of this also comes the realization that you can’t do everything, and there are sometimes tradeoffs. My concession has been a re-embracing of my love of wine. Now, I’d never given wine up – god forbid – but for a while I’d cut down to mostly only having wine on Friday nights (date night!) and special occasions. And you know what? Right now? Fuck that. On days when I volunteer after work I get home and I’m wired and full of stories and Matthew and I talk about our days and whatever is going on around the world and for a while I was having trouble getting to sleep on those nights, no matter how exhausted I was; it was just hard to wind down. You know what really helps? Aaaaw yeah. A glass of Bota Box Old Vine Zinfandel.

So I’ve put on a few pounds, because wine will do that to you. And I’m good with that, because although I don’t pretend to have somehow magically freed myself from the messed up body issues of our culture, for me fitness has never been tied to my jeans size. I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing – I ran 7 miles this morning, the number of pushups I do hasn’t decreased – and if thoroughly enjoying my evening wine helps me to unwind from a day outside the pillow fort and get a good night’s sleep to prepare for the next one, and if being a bit rounder is the result of that, I’m down. You know, I’ve always had a lot of admiration for the type of athletic woman who isn’t skinny and wouldn’t want to be because she loves her burgers and loves going out for drinks but she could totally kick your ass on the field of her preferred sport. Maybe I’mma be one of those. Plus, in case I hadn’t mentioned this part, I really, really love wine. So if wine is going to help me be awesome, well, I think I’ll bear up under the strain.

Weekend of Experiences

A protest, the Latino Awards and an unexpected connection – it’s been a full weekend.

Yesterday Matthew and I went to the counter-protest to stand against the protest organized by white supremacist groups around a Confederate monument in Fort Sanders. As the article I linked to shows, it went wonderfully – I can hardly imagine a better outcome – we outnumbered them wildly with close to thee thousand of us and about three dozen of them. The protest was peaceful. There was a great “let’s unify and show these guys that we don’t want hate in our city” vibe. The city was very well prepared for it and kept the two sides separated.

Of course, going in we couldn’t have known that it would go so well. I expected that it would, and I also expected that the showing on their side would be small – apparently when white supremacists have shown up to protest in Knoxville it historically hasn’t gone well for them – but this isn’t a time to make assumptions. I mentioned in my last post that the post-Charlottesville rally I went to wasn’t my first protest but wasn’t far from it – this was definitely the first protest I went to that involved police in riot gear.

We only found out that this was happening last week – it all came together very quickly – and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t nervous about it, or that a part of me didn’t want to find a justification to stay home, or to go to another of the events in town. One group put together a gathering/rally to promote love and peace at a completely different location for people uncomfortable going to the direct counter-protest – and I respect that, I’m glad that that event existed, for people who for any reason just weren’t up for the face-to-face thing and the tension, and also for families who wanted to take their kids out to an event that would be safe for them. For me, though – me personally – going to that event would’ve been a cop out. I knew as soon as I found out about it that I needed to go to the counter-protest. That I wouldn’t be anywhere else. This is exactly the kind of thing that I’ve been saying I would do if something like this came up, and it was time to live up to those words. Matthew, of course, was right on board with me.

And we did some preparation – I wore cargo shorts so I could carry the things I needed without a bag. I bought some sunglasses to take and wore sturdy shoes instead of sandals. We both took bandannas soaked in vinegar in sandwich bags – something we agreed was likely way over preparing, but a friend told us that they can make a huge difference if pepper spray ends up being involved, and better to over-prepare.

None of that turned out to be necessary – and I could’ve taken my bag after all and it would’ve been fine – but I felt better heading out knowing that we’d taken a few precautions.

The protest itself turned out to be a lot of fun. We were there for a while before anyone even showed up on the other side – when it had gotten to be past the time they were supposed to appear and no one had shown up, folks on our side started chanting “Hate is late!” That was one of my favorite chants of the day. There were also a few rounds of “Not about the monument!” which was very true. It wasn’t about the monument – it was about showing white supremacist groups that they shouldn’t feel empowered to show up in our town without expecting massive resistance.

There were people with signs that were brilliant and many that were funny – we didn’t take a sign but a group had made a bunch ahead of time and were handing them out; we took one that said “There’s Life After Hate.” Next time I’ll make my own sign. I’ll definitely use better poster board; ours was a bit on the floppy side and was a bit challenging whenever a breeze went by.

We saw a bunch of people that we knew and I saw a ton of people that I’ve seen around town at other events. The claim of paid protesters is hilarious to anyone protesting in what is essentially a big little town. It ended up feeling like a big ol’ social event, and I was perfectly fine with that. I think these outcomes are important – I think the headlines about us outnumbering them 70:1 are important, and I was proud to be a part of it.

We ended up leaving the protest before it ended to make sure we had enough time to get home, get changed and get to the Latino Awards Gala early enough to help out with ushering. We managed it without having to rush too much, and the Gala was a lot of fun – the ushering was a bit like Diner Dash but once everything got into the groove we got it done and got everyone to their tables. We were some of the last folks to get to our tables after helping everyone else get seated, but the tacos were well worth the wait.

It was great seeing several of my ESL students there, all dressed up and with their families. Applauding the badass Centro staff when Claudia, the Executive Director, recognized them in her speech was great – and standing when she called for volunteers to stand felt really good, too.

The timing of it ended up being interesting. It was only the previous night that the news about Trump pardoning Joe Arpaio came out (I won’t rant about that now, plenty of people have talked about it way more eloquently and with way more information than I could, I’ll just say that the news made me absolutely sick) and I just hope that having the Latino Awards the very next day was a balm for some folks’ hearts. I know it was for mine.

After a super full and active day yesterday (I got in over 25k steps without any intentional exercise) I tried to keep it really low-key today, and I succeeded at that, but I did have one interaction that’s going to stick with me for a while. I took a walk downtown and was about to walk past two scruffy middle aged guys walking together when one of them asked me if I had any cigarettes. I said I didn’t smoke; he thanked me anyway and then thought to ask if I had any spare change. I said “That I can do” and gave him a couple bucks. He thanked me and I wished them well and was going to just keep trucking past when he asked me to spare a good thought for his friend, who is going through a rough time. He’s been sick, the guy told me, and then the friend spoke up for himself to say that his wife left him and took his dog, too. I said that that was really really rough and that I was sorry he was going through all that, and he talked about how he’d gone from being “on top of the world” to nowhere very quickly. I told him I’d definitely send good thoughts his way. He thanked me, and didn’t say much more after that, but his friend – Red, as I learned (his real name is Dave but people call him Red because of his long red – now shot with white – beard) – kept talking to me for a while.

It’s an interaction I would’ve avoided not long ago. Not because he wasn’t nice or because I felt threatened – I didn’t, not even slightly – but just because, at first at least, it made me feel awkward and I wasn’t sure how to approach it. I’m really trying to stop just fleeing these situation where I feel awkward, especially if my own privilege is what’s making me feel awkward. Avoiding connecting with people because it’s awkward isn’t doing me any good.

So we talked. We were walking in the same direction, there was no need for me to hurry off or take a different route just to get away from him. And I was very glad I didn’t, because we ended up having a really nice conversation, wherein he recommended I check out Justin Cronin’s The Passage and when I told him I’d already read it, and the sequel, but that I hadn’t read the third one yet because I wanted to re-read the first two first, he was pretty floored that it turned that I also loved one of his favorite books. He told me that he’d gotten kicked out of a treatment facility (after telling me “I’m an alcoholic, I know you know that” – and yes, I’d known that) because they wanted him to participate in some activity or other but he just wanted to read his book and wouldn’t put it down. He ended up leaving, buying a 40 and finishing the book.

When it was time to part ways, we ended up hugging and fist-bumping. He called me “person,” and asked me if I knew that Native Americans (he used the term “Indians”) only refer to people of their own tribe as “person.” (I have no idea if there’s any truth to this or if it’s an urban legend and a quick Google search wasn’t helpful so more research is needed.) I said that I didn’t know that, but said “It’s good to know you, person,” and told him to take care of himself. We headed off in separate directions. I’ll likely never see him again, but if I do I’ll stop and talk to him, and give him a hug and a fist-bump.

It’s been a weekend of experiences.

Charlottesville, Protest, Ongoing Work and Symbolic Nazi Punches

Today wasn’t my first protest, but it wasn’t far from it – and it was my first protest of this type; something formed quickly in direct response to a particular incident. I posted a while back about how my focus has been on volunteering/education rather than protest and direct action, and I’m fine with that, everyone finds their own work – but I said that I wanted to stay open to opportunities for protest, and this wasn’t something I would’ve been okay with sitting out.

It was a great gathering and an excellent group of speakers – the Knoxville News Sentinel livestreamed the whole thing. I was particularly impressed with Representative Rick Staples; his message about refusing to turn away from difficult situations and choosing to become dangerous was powerful.

I participated in my first Black Lives Matter chant. It felt significant, and it felt overdue.

There was a police presence but it was small – and I wonder how that same event would’ve been different if had been organized by Black Lives Matter. There were folks there from BLM, but the event was organized and promoted by the Women’s March Coalition. I was so aware the whole time that I’m a middle class white woman and I was attending a rally organized primarily by white women – almost all of the speakers were people of color and they were the voices of the event, but when an organization that’s known to be run by middle class white women organizes an event in Market Square, the response is different than it would have been if it had been organized directly by Black Lives Matter. I’m not saying that this detracted from the event – in fact I think it was an example of using white privilege for good – it’s just something I wanted to be aware of.

I’m glad that Knoxville responded so quickly. It makes me proud of my city that I didn’t have to drive two hours to go to an event like this, I just had to walk two miles. I’m proud of the amazing and diverse collection of leaders and activists and educators and elected officials who spoke. I’m proud that our mayor was there via livestream even though she’s apparently traveling currently.

And it tears me up that we had to have this event in the first place. It tears me up that white supremacy is still a thing. That people – real people – can even believe such hideous things.

Not long ago, something like this would’ve happened and I would’ve just thrown my hands up and said I didn’t know what to do to help, and I would’ve retreated into my world of entertainment and not actually looked for ways to help. Going to a rally isn’t going to fix the world, but it’s something – it’s getting out there and standing up with people in my city who believe that our country can – and must – fight this crisis. And maybe I’m not out there on a front line literally punching Nazis in the face, but every time I go to Centro to help immigrants learn to speak English, I like to think I’m delivering a symbolic punch in the face to the white supremacists. And I’m just going to keep on doing that. A particular rally may be a one-time thing, but the message it sends to the city – and the country – is important, and so is the organization and motivation that comes as a result, and the energy that people take away. I came away ready to keep plugging away at my Spanish studies and to go into Centro next week and deliver some symbolic Nazi punches.

So Many Kinds of Pride

I mentioned before that I didn’t want to restrict the topics of this blog – I’ve tried that before, blogging on a single theme, and inevitably I have other things that I want to natter about and so I either feel like I’m going off topic or I just trail off of posting because what I want to post about doesn’t seem to fit the space. The title “JJ Does Today” seemed fitting, both in its openness and in its hint of where I’ve been going with my life – trying to do a better job of getting more out of each day; giving more to each day.

And man did we ever do the shit out of yesterday.

Yesterday was Pride – and I’m pretty sure Pride this year is the 21st anniversary of my first ever Pride Fest. There weren’t parades where I grew up, but we had a festival every year and the summer I turned 18 was my first one. I was so freaking excited – just being at this event that celebrated the awesomeness of the parts of me that so many other people were telling me were shameful was overwhelmingly joyful. To this day I still get a hit of that mojo at Pride – it’ll never be as heady as it was when I was a teenager, nothing ever is, but seeing so many people celebrating and reveling and being their beautiful, queer, sometimes mundane, sometimes over-the-top and sometimes thoroughly weird selves – their proud selves, no matter where they fall – still chokes me up every time.

We watched the parade, then headed to the festival – they had more security this year which I appreciated, but it meant for a longish wait to get inside, which was still fun and heartening – it was great that so many people were willing to wait and it was hilarious hearing some of the chants people came up with to troll the inevitable handful of protesters, some of whom had signs protesting truly odd and specific sins – one guy had a sign with an extremely detailed list of the types of people facing hellfire. Apparently you’re going to hell if you’re a sports fan, or a country music fan? Who knew? One guy had a big sign protesting the evils of “Homo Sex” and so at one point the crowd just chanted “Homo sex! Homo sex!” I was a fan of that one.

We didn’t stay terribly long – it was hot and crowded and we had another event to go to in the evening, and spending a long chunk of time at Pride is really best if you’ve got a crew to hang with. We ran into a few friends and there were a few others that we knew were there that we didn’t run into, but everyone was going in their own directions. We listened to the gay men’s chorus sing (including Let It Go with a drag Elsa) and I bought a Human Rights Campaign “Love Conquers Hate” tank top and a new set of freedom rings (though no one calls them that anymore – young queer folk never have any idea what I’m talking about when I say “freedom rings”) just because seeing them brought back so much nostalgia. Mostly I was thrilled just to be there and soak up the vibes for a while.

(And I gotta say, when I saw that there was an FBI booth recruiting folks for jobs I was so tempted to go up to them and say “Lordy, I didn’t expect to see you here!”)

In between events I ran to the co-op to grab some groceries and I saw our wonderful badass mayor – I see her there from time to time and I’ve always been too shy to introduce myself, but yesterday was a brave day. I was thinking about how I’d met her at Pride years ago, the first time she campaigned for mayor (she lost that time, and didn’t try again for a few years), and how much I appreciate having a mayor that makes me proud – and that regularly shows up at Pride. So I went up to her and awkwardly and gushingly told her that I thought she was awesome and thanked her for helping me to be proud of my city. I kept it short, I didn’t want to bug her too much while she was just trying to get her groceries, but she seemed to appreciate it – I can’t imagine anyone minds too much being stopped so that someone can tell them that they’re awesome.

The second event of the day was World Refugee Day – Matthew and I do volunteer work for Bridge Refugee Service from time to time and we’d offered to help out at this event. We had no idea what we’d end up doing, these things almost always end up being full of surprises with Bridge, and last night was no exception. We ran a few errands carrying things and setting things up, but then they asked us if we’d help another volunteer get a soccer game started for any kids that might want to join in while their parents were looking at booths or listening to the musicians. I should mention that neither of has any idea how to play soccer or knows anything about the rules. Fortunately Brandon, the other volunteer that we were working with, was more knowledgeable than us – and a bit less awkward with kids. It took a little while for it to catch on, but in time we had a good number of kids coming and going from the “game,” which was really just a bunch of kicking and running around.

There were kids from literally all over the world on that field. At one point they decided that the loosely-defined teams were England and Brazil. I think I was supposed to be on the England team but I’m not sure – at one point they tried to get Matthew and I to be the refs but then they realized how hopeless we were at actually knowing the rules. So we ran around, kicked balls, kept an eye on them, listened to them be rowdy and high spirited – and there was definitely something a bit magical about being out on that field with kids who look so very different from each other, watching them tumbling and cheering while listening to musicians from various countries, then listening to the raffle numbers translated into multiple different languages, on a warm summer evening with the sun setting and folks from all around the community celebrating the bravery of these people who have brought their families here through struggles I can only imagine.

There was a lot of Pride of various kinds in my day yesterday. And amusingly enough, the last musician did a cover of Born This Way, which of course we’d heard at the Pride Parade – it was a fitting way to bookend the day.

When the event was over we helped clean up – there was a lot of running around and carrying; we were both definitely wiped out by the end of the day, but it was an exhaustion full of all sorts of good vibes. I’ve been ending more days like that lately – exhausted, but filled up. It’s a good kind of change.

Podcasts & Conversations

Thoughts from today:

1. Vive la France! I was relieved when Wilders lost in the Netherlands and I’m relieved today. I don’t claim to understand the intricacies of politics in other countries (there’s still a ton I don’t understand about the intricacies in my own) but I know I’m relieved that the rest of the world isn’t jumping into crazy with both feet along with us and the UK.

2. This week’s Lovett or Leave It was awesome – I gotta say, I’m almost completely off of TV right now and I don’t remember the last time I watched a sitcom, but I would watch the hell out of Everybody Hates Comey.

3. My typical Sunday podcast binge also included the first episode of Pod Save the People which was excellent and inspiring and I’m looking forward to it being a part of my regular podcast rotation. One of the guests – shared advice from his father that was to always be worth more than you cost in any situation. That’s something to aspire to.

4. A group of local Methodist churches have been hosting monthly Continuing Conversations on Race talks for a while, and I’ve been going for the past three months (the way I got involved in this is a tale for a separate post, because it’s really tied in with my journey to find my volunteer niche). Today was the last meeting before they take a break for the summer. It’s always a fascinating and enriching but also kind of odd experience for me because it’s very likely I’m usually the only non-Christian in the room. The talks are very social justice oriented and the Christianity that goes along with them is the kind of Christ-centered Christianity that I’m totally down with even if it’s not my belief so it doesn’t bother me at all, there’s just definitely an element of being an outside observer at times. I always get a lot out of the talks – today’s theme was Trailblazers, and several people told their stories – a woman from Haiti whose family had to leave around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis; a man who spent a week in jail after being arrested at a lunch counter protest during the Civil Rights Movement; the pastor of the hosting church who was raised in Alabama and was a student when integration first started there. And there was good conversation at our table during the small group chat part, too.

Part of pushing myself out of my bubble has just been cultivating a willingness to put myself in situations that I find awkward or outside my comfort zone if it means I’m going to have the chance to connect with people I normally wouldn’t connect with, who have experiences that I need to better understand.

And now I’m going to kick back with some 90% chocolate and a coconut La Croix and do a few Spanish lessons. Buenas noches!

My Panhandling Fund

I didn’t used to give money to panhandlers – if someone asked me for money I’d brusquely but truthfully tell them that I didn’t carry cash and keep moving. Then I heard an interview on the BBC with a man who lived on the streets for an extended period of time in order to be able to write about the experience and he said that one of the worst parts of it was the feeling of dehumanization – that other people didn’t acknowledge his existence.

I realized how frequently I avoided eye contact with people that I perceived to be potential panhandlers because I wanted to try to avoid the awkward encounter of being asked for, and declining to give, money. That made me think – what if I just … gave them some money? Even just a little, every time? What if I always kept money on me to be able to give? Then I wouldn’t feel like I had to avoid looking at someone, smiling at someone, because if they asked me for money I’d just give them some. Who cares if the story they tell about why they need the money is true – who cares what they use it for – this is a person in need and I am a person of privilege and I can afford to give folks a buck or two here and there and not notice the difference in my budget.

So I started keeping cash with me. The difference I was hoping for – feeling more inclined to make eye contact and smile at people – definitely resulted. I also enjoy having cash on hand to give to buskers, something I wanted to make a point of doing regularly since reading Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking.

Matthew and I usually have dinner at our neighborhood food co-op’s hot bar on Saturday evenings. Tonight there was a man at one of the tables with drawing supplies set out on the table and he struck up a conversation with us. He was selling hand lettered Mother’s Day cards and, because I had cash from my panhandling fund, I bought one from him. He was an odd duck but a sweet man – we chatted about dramatic weather and how spicy the chicken wings are at the hot bar (he said they set his head on fire – honestly they’re pretty damned mild really). It was the kind of interaction I would’ve tried to escape from before – and I’m still not great at it; I’m an introvert and chatting with strangers is hardly my strong suit but within reason/limits if someone wants to talk a little, I want to be open to that. Nudging myself out of the bubble.