April 2011

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Well, I’ve done the economic calculations, I’ve been having meetings with various school offices and departments, and I’ve received a load of commentary and advice from people around me, but I still haven’t made a decision whether I’m going to study to be a teacher this year.

After talking with my good friend Bruin today, I feel a little bit more space to imagine some other possibilities, and I realized that maybe I don’t have to rush into a decision like I’ve been thinking. Do I really have to lock myself into a decision this year? Is the window really that small, or is it something that I’ve created out of the sense of life/financial urgency that I feel because of all my responsibilities? What would happen if I took it a little easier for a year, experimented with other types of work and living, spent some more time with my writing, thinking, and non-paid organizing? What could I discover about my economic possibilities? What could I discover about potential work that I could love?

It’s true that I feel the urgency pretty intensely. I feel like I have to get moving on a career track, toward a stable salary, retirement, benefits. After struggling in the non-profit sector where funding is always scarce and intermittent, I’m tired of constantly doubting whether I’ll have work 3 months from now. I’m tired of having no ability to plan or save beyond the short term. That’s one of the really compelling things about pursuing a profession like teaching–though I recognize the instability in that field as well. I would like the financial question to have more consistent and automatic answers, so that I can spend my mental energy on other things.

But what other things? This is the question that I’d like to have more time to explore. I’m worried that public school teaching will so focus my mental energies on the students, my classes, my planning, the bureaucracy, that all of the thinking, reading, organizing, and building that I’m doing toward bigger change, toward bigger learning, will be significantly diminished. The stuff in this blog, the revolutionary congregations, the popular education questions, the strategic questions…all things that I wish I had hundreds of hours of more free time to further develop and actually test with other people…will teaching be compatible with that, or will the bulk of this–which really is critical to the me that I like best–be sacrificed?

And here’s where I actually notice a martyr tendency in myself. I feel like I have no right to continue getting paid to do explicitly revolutionary work or thinking, and that I should thus sacrifice myself to a career track that I know will not use my full abilities. Because teaching will not use my full abilities. It will use my abilities to plan good curriculum, yes. It’ll use my abilities to work with youth, support them personally, and help them ask critical questions, yes. It’ll even hopefully use my abilities to help institutions move toward more justice and youth empowerment, sure. But a lot of the bigger picture thinking, movement building, theory work, visionary work etc. will not be stretched that far in the teaching path.

Let’s look at it this way, using the economic concept of comparative advantage. There is a limited supply of radical people, and especially of skilled radical thinkers, organizers, movement builders. There is a much more abundant supply of liberal/progressive type people. If you take the radical people and the liberal/progressive people and have them both doing sort of under the table work or random work for pay, and then organizing in their free time, I think the radical people have an especially unique and important contribution from their free-time organizing. At the end of the day, the radicals will add something to the world that the liberal/progressives would not have added. Now, if you take those same two people and have them focusing most of their energy and time on being good teachers, I would argue that both the liberals/progressives and the radicals will actually end up making more or less the same contribution towards youth and toward educational change. That is, I don’t think radicals have that much uniquely to offer in the teaching field as the many more prevalent liberal/progressive folks. At the end of the day, I think liberals/progressives are similarly capable of being great teachers, and so the fact that we’re radical has much less impact on the world if we are teachers than if we are in the streets organizing. I fear that my own unique skills, interests, and abilities will be less utilized as a public school teacher than if I was doing something else…even working random lower wage work that gives me free time to write and organize.

But I shut this line of thinking down pretty fast. How dare I suggest that I have a unique contribution to make. How dare I suggest that teaching isn’t a maximum use of my personality and potential. And what about my internalized need to show success to my parents and family? What about the financial obligations to Glendi’s family?

I just don’t know what to do. But one piece of advice that Bruin gave me is really useful. I want to at least take these days before my decision to think about the other viable options, and really think about them as viable options. I don’t want to make my decision from a place of feeling trapped or rushed. I want to be able to own this decision this time.

If you’ve read this, feel free to chime in!

I have an image of myself as a pretty lazy person. I don’t like working. I really like spending half a day in bed. I procrastinate on almost everything. I can be really flaky on getting back to people.

In fact, this self-image is so much a part of me that I’m mostly incapable of ever feeling truly relaxed. I have a constant feeling that I’m not doing what I’m supposed to, and that something must be wrong. I don’t tend to think that I’m a dramatic person, but I do think that I live in a sense of permanent crisis. And I usually think that crisis could be avoided if I was less lazy.

But then on certain days, like today, I actually step back and make a list of all the things that I’m actively working on right now, and the question almost completely flips! Could it be the opposite? That I’m actually drastically overcapacity and I’ve lost my perspective on what “productivity” and “laziness” even mean (both of which have all sorts of ablist, classist, racist undertones, right?)?

I mean, let’s actually make a list of what I’ve actively done this week:

-International wire transfer to Guatemala of $8,000 that Glendi and I raised to buy land for the Guatemala school project
-International transfer of final $2,000 to Guatemala to build first septic tank and basic plumbing for Glendi’s family
-Two meetings and loads of correspondence around my grad school applications and impending decision
-Publicity and logistics for a political speaking event on May 12
-Co-organizing a 250-person, $12,000+ fundraising dinner for my job for May 21
-Daily support for a youth direct action campaign against the school to prison pipeline, including a May 4 action
-Helping to prepare my transition out of my job and the hiring of someone new by July
-Preparing and facilitating of two presentations/workshops on Thursday and tomorrow
-2 nights of support for Glendi’s various jobs, making copies, driving Glendi around, etc.
-Daily cooking and chores
-Phone conversations and hangout scheduling with multiple friends
-Walking 10,000 steps each night
-Reading each night
-Writing each night
-Oh, and dealing with identity theft and fraud of $400 by someone in France, and changing all accounts

What?! I walk around each day with all of these threads, struggling to hold them together. Yet, still, even right now my dominant perspective is that I was lazy this week! Seriously, what?!

How do I accept what I’m not able to do in a week? How can I accept that healthy living includes downtime in which I actually do calm down? How can I accept that perfection actually is impossible, and that it’s not the secret goal of my little real-life video game? How do I hold onto my self-love, even in moments when I feel like I’m screwing everything up by not working harder?

Jeremy. Please breathe. Feel your body. You’re okay. You’re okay. I love you so much. I think you need a good cry.

I just finished reading Jon Krakauer’s “3 Cups of Deceit,” the 90 page article that exposes Greg Mortenson–the author of the bestselling books “3 Cups of Tea” and “Stones Into Schools”–for his lies and tricks. Wow. Almost every page drew out a verbal exclamation from me as I read it on the bus. Krakauer makes a devastating case against Mortenson and his charity, Central Asia Institute, which has received over 50 million dollars to build schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He paints a portrait of a man so wrapped up in created a heroic image of himself and his work that he’s willing to throw his own close people under the bus, including the communities that he’s supposedly dedicated to.

I read the article as soon as I heard about it because, I have to admit, I was inspired by Mortenson like millions of others. I read “3 Cups of Tea” last winter when I was in Guatemala, when Glendi and I were finally getting serious about building a free community school down there. I was mesmerized by the story of a humble, complicated white guy who, through the building of respectful relationships with people at the grassroots–and without government intervention–helped communities provide education to thousands of children. While I was upset by some of the implicit Islamaphobia in the book, I still thought that it was a powerful story of how much can be accomplished when privileged people approach solidarity from a place of listening, mutual respect, and responsibility.

Ha! It’s really jaw-dropping how far from the truth the stories were. I won’t spend my time going into all the details because they’re all over the net, but they include at least dozens of schools that simply don’t exist, dozens more “ghost schools” that are just empty buildings because teachers and supplies were never sent, Mortenson repeatedly claiming that a group of people who treated him with the utmost respect and friendship were Taliban who had kidnapped him for 8 days, and the subsequent banning of Mortenson from certain communities for his defamation of them. It goes way beyond this, though.

I feel sick. Not because I’m actually surprised–somehow a large part of me just reacts, “It figures”–but because of what it exposes about the ethics of international solidarity work. While Mortenson’s offenses are particularly outrageous, they actually highlight how easily such projects can be corrupted. See, the reason Mortenson got away with this for so long is because of the tremendous distance–geographical, cultural, linguistic, and technological–between the communities in which he was supposedly working and the communities in which we live. This distance allowed him to be a gatekeeper and a translator, and it made it really hard to enforce meaningful accountability. I actually think this phenomenon is rampant in international solidarity projects (and in U.S. non-profits), and I actually feel hints of it in my own representations of Guatemala here in the U.S. When privileged people have the power to set the narrative of what marginalized communities need, it is a pretty much a certainty that eventually that narrative will become corrupted and abusive.

This is what should have tipped us all off, and which I assume many anti-imperialists have probably been arguing against for years: that Mortenson has spent the last 15 years endlessly speaking for communities, without making any real efforts to step back and support those communities to speak for themselves. That open communication– based in authentic and lasting dialogue between the community affected and those wishing to work in solidarity–is the foundation for ethical international solidarity projects. If it’s not there, then we should always know that something’s fishy.

And if it’s not messy, then we should also assume that something’s wrong. International, cross-class, cross-cultural communication is fraught with contradictions. Differences in perspective and education level are real. It doesn’t usually make for heartwarming, page-turning bestseller material. In the Mortenson case, for example, it’s ridiculous to assume that the top priority for every community was building a school. That narrative should have been doubted from the beginning, as Krakauer touches upon. What happens if a community wants a medical clinic, a road, a mill, irrigation? How did those conversations happen? One of the tricks of the Mortenson books was that they did have some of that messiness, but it’s incredible to see how much of it is projected upon the communities and not the North Americans. And it’s really telling that I didn’t notice it until now.

It’s impossible for me to separate this thinking from Glendi and I’s own aspiration to build a school. So far, it’s been very much our project. We do have a plan for moving toward community control of the project, but there is no question that the project is starting from our own values, priorities, and money. Two ways that we’ve made sense of the ethics of this are that 1) Glendi is rooted in the community where we are working, and this project comes from her own dream to make this school happen, and 2) the current channels of community leadership are so corrupt that if we try to engage them they will potentially destroy or deeply distort the project…and so community control has to wait until we can do more on-the-ground organizing. I think these two points have merit, but what is the process by which the community itself–not the community power structure, but the base community–gets to speak for and control the project? Is it going to be a patronizing decision by us, the benefactors, that now our neighbors are “ready” to assume control? Do we just go to a mass meeting with a big check and do whatever the first mass meeting decides? This is not easy, and I would argue that anyone who thinks it is doesn’t have much on the ground experience in such things.

So if authentic international communication, decision-making, and accountability are hard, there’s at least one thing that’s not so hard: telling the truth! This is where Mortenson’s “management style” is straight up racist and criminal. While I know that my presence in Guatemala, every dollar I send, every dollar I hold back, every piece of advice I give from my perspective is problematic, at least I admit it openly. I talk about it. I ask about it. I try to read about it. That’s the least I can do. That, in my view, is the basic humility that privileged folks need to have when working in communities that are not our own. Honesty and transparency are the bare minimum…they are what allow us to turn our perpetual screw-ups into lessons, and then into solid contributions.

I’m curious about what will happen to Greg Mortenson and his charity. I personally hope that he loses his fortune. I hope that, in his absence, the communities that were supposed to benefit from his work will find more listeners and authentic supporters. And I hope the thousands of other projects like his will take a long hard look at ourselves, and start making some deep changes to our work.

I’m in a pickle. I need to make a tough decision, and I pretty much only have 10 days to do it.

I just got word that I’ve been accepted into the local Master In Teaching program that I was most excited about. Since I’m leaving my job of almost 4 years in July, the time has come for new life decisions, and so this is both great news and difficult news.

It’s great for the obvious reasons. The program’s really close by, it’s got a great reputation, and I’ll be set to start teaching by next fall. But what makes it difficult for me is the seeming finality of it. If I choose to enter this program, I’m making a long term commitment to both a large amount of debt (the financial aid in a program like this is pretty tough and I haven’t put nearly enough time into scholarship applications) and a potential life-long career path. To choose this now, I’m essentially sealing in that my job role in the world is to work closely with young people, in and around schools and other educational projects. This is what I’ve been doing for nearly 10 years already, and I do think I’m pretty darn good at it, so it may seem that it’s a given, but I’m resistant to making that conclusion.

There is a part of me, perhaps even an entire half of me, that thinks there’s something different out there for me, and that doubt needs a place to find expression. This is a situation where I need a place like this website. Before I sign my name on that letter I received today I need to give myself a little bit of time to freely ask myself: do I really want to teach? Do I even want to work with youth anymore? What else could I do for work? What else stirs my passion?

I thought I had already answered some of these questions in 2007, when I entered, studied for 2 months, and then left another Master In Teaching program. At the time, I remember feeling like becoming a teacher was too much of a lifestyle choice, not just a career choice. I was worried that I would lose all of my capacity to organize outside of the job and that I would be unhappy having to work under the strictures of public school systems. I thought that I’d be forever looking outside the window of my classroom wondering, “why am I not in the streets?”

However, after almost 4 years in the radical non-profit world, my perspective has changed. In this economic system, radical non-profits also pretty much have to push their workers to capacity, and I do feel too tired to do any other organizing. Further, I feel like I’ve actually been far less effective at doing good work with lots of young people than I was when I was working in the schools. And I also have come to believe that if we want more inter-generational presence in the streets, then youth non-profits won’t cut it. We need more good teachers making the movement connection with youth directly in the schools.

And of course the financial question. As Glendi’s family has grown and grown up, and as health issues have dominated her parents’ lives, our financial burden has skyrocketed. We sent around $18,000 to Guatemala last year, more than half of our total income. Watching as non-profits fold up all around me and as even our own organization is constantly in a precarious position, I feel a need for a stable job that I could potentially get regardless of the economic climate. Non-profits are not that job.

There are other options, of course. Going for a doctorate and doing scholarship, trying for a bigger salary in the private sector, starting a small business, learning a different trade, etc. I still get really excited about linguistics, and I get excited about writing for a living. But here again is where age and economics come to constrict the choices. We can’t afford to enter multi-year training or graduate programs, and we can’t really afford to take risks on new ventures right now. Stability really has to be a keyword until other members of Glendi’s family are working.

But I’m scared of teaching. I fear that so many years of working with youth, while sharpening my skills, have burnt me out. I don’t have the same patience that I once had with young people. I find myself being more cynical about what youth can accomplish sometimes. Where once I was so excited to do new curriculum and to have facilitation opportunities, now I just feel tired. And if I get frustrated at lack of youth participation in a non-profit when youth choose to be there, how will I feel when I’m a part of that occupying force of teachers who are forcing students to sit still and participate? Sure, I want to do things really differently if I’m a teacher, but modern bureaucracies are not often kind to new experiments, and regimented curriculum and instruction techniques are becoming common.

My response to these concerns varies: no matter what job it is, I’ll always feel tired and worn out by work; sure it’s hard, but we need good people doing that work; I don’t have to be inspired by every moment of teaching, because with proper skills and preparation I can teach even on days when I’m not enjoying it; and I don’t have to teach forever, there are lots of other institutional opportunities once one has a few years of teaching under their belt.

Sometimes I’m convinced, but I also recognize that heavy, sad feeling of settling. I do feel like I’m settling, and like the wide open possibilities of youth have finally closed. But this is also a very entitled perspectiv. The very fact that I have this opportunity to get a higher level degree that could almost guarantee me a stable financial future with tenure and retirement benefits (assuming that unions don’t lose the education fight completely!) is really unique, and I don’t want to be ungrateful or shortsighted. But I don’t want to regret my career choices for the rest of my life either.

On the job, I think I would be able to teach well. I think I can manage a daily class load of 150-175 students or whatever and know their names, give some personalization, yet maintain larger, more efficient teaching systems in order to keep cool and go home okay. I think I’ve learned some emotional boundaries that would keep me from taking youth trauma home with me nightly. And I think I could support some great education for a lot of youth, and some personalized support for those who don’t feel like they are learning with me.

But will I be able to write or organize in my off time? Will I also have time for family, community, and hopefully fatherhood? Will the summer breaks be long enough for time in Guatemala?

I feel like I have too many political ideas that I want to experiment with still to sacrifice them to a hard career. If teaching really does have to be my only organizing, I don’t know if I can take that. If I can’t ever get time to write, I don’t know if I have that in me either.

These questions linger, and I realize that I need to ask some of my teacher friends. As the 10 days toward a decision tick down, I’m sure I’ll be writing about this more.

This is my first time writing a post on a mobile device, while waiting for Glendi to get out of a meeting.  So it’ll probably be short.

I just started rereading Eli Clare’s Exile and Pride, and while I was waiting for that to arrive I read Richard Wright’s Black Boy/American Hunger (perhaps one of the most stunning and beautiful books I’ve yet read), and both of these have me thinking about the profundity of internalized oppression/privilege, and the implications for organizing.  When the structures and cultures around us have so strongly defined what normal is, and what our desires are supposed to be, how do we, collectively, transcend those limits and live liberated lives?  How does that not feel so scarily unfamiliar, so uncomfortable, that we actually prefer it to the familiar pain that we’ve grown into?

There are lots of smart responses to these questions, from Gramsci and counter-hegemony, to somatics practices, even some observations on the transformational power of insurrectionary activity.  For me, this stuff is so fun and important to think about.  But I think the starting place for any attempt has to be a recognition of the depth and complexity we’re dealing with here.  Eli Clare’s metaphor of the mountain, and the earnest reflections on the conflicted desire to climb it, Wright’s poignant and rich analyses of a variety of white and black internalizations of white supremacy…they have hit me hard with the miniute details of how the system seeps into us.  That doesn’t wash out easily.  Our names and identities are tied into it.

This is why it kind of frustrates me when thoughtful revolutionaries seem really tied up with predominately institutional solutions.  That’s fine, but the concrete, soulful practices are truly where we consistantly make the most mistakes and where we have the most to learn.

More on this at some point, in some way.

Dear Jeremy,

I’m not gonna lie, I’m scared for you.

With all that’s happened over the last couple of years, I can feel my newfound flinch response to thinking about the far future. How dare I cast out hopes that far? To raise my voice with my desires for you seems like an open invitation for life to sabotage us. But if I shy away from my aspirations, what remains? The other stuff. The rougher stuff. The stuff that I haven’t liked to talk about.

I guess this is where I need to start. Because at the very least, Jeremy, I hope you’re still there. I hope you’re alive, that you feel healthy and that you feel connected to your body. Because from this vantage point, it’s that heady disconnection, that calm fog that comes over me when things get really hard that has me wondering if you will be. I hope you’ll make it. I hope you’ve at least made the choice to keep sticking it out.

I hope you feel far less lonely. Recently—and increasingly—I’m realizing the seemingly obvious: that it’s not for lack of other like-minded people that I’ve felt so lonely these last 30 years, but it’s my own fear of connection. To be real with how sensitive and passionate I am, to open myself up to how much I actually do feel in this life and world is profoundly vulnerable. I hope that you’re sharing that vulnerability more. I hope you are sharing and transcending your insecurities and your blemishes, because we both know that everyone around us is feeling their own version of them too. Who are your communities? Who are your close people? How many secrets are you holding onto right now?

I hope you still feel love. For Glendi. For your family and friends. For your co-workers, whoever they might be. I hope you still cry sometimes in simple appreciation of them. What is love feeling like for you right now? What are the things you’re feeling most deeply, most regularly? What are the things that are making you laugh?

But beyond these broad things, I’m frightened of hoping for more. Instead, I guess more questions:

Are you still organizing and/or doing popular education work? What has felt most successful? What lessons have you learned in the last 15 years? What is the state of social movements in the US and globally?

What is your relationship to place? Where are you living and for how long? What roots have grown?

How is the family? How is Glendi? What about children?

How are things in Guatemala? What projects are you involved in there? Has anyone else in the family made it up north? What about the Alaska family?

Have your relationship wounds healed? How social are you, and how well are you keeping up with people who are in our lives now as I’m writing this? Are there people in your life who you feel like you can’t talk to? Why, and are the reasons worth it?

What languages do you speak? What happened with Mandarin? Any luck with K’iche or Mam?

How are you getting by financially? Do you still hate working? Do you actually feel like you have a career or calling? What is Glendi doing for work?

What are you writing? What are you reading? What music and art are you really appreciating?

Damn, what is technologically like? What is the political economy like? White supremacy? Heterosexism? Patriarchy? The strength of the dollar? The US’s geopolitical power? Climate change?

Are you still playing games? If so, what and with who? What is your relationship to consumerism? What sport type activities are you doing? What recreational technologies are around that I wouldn’t even know about now? How did the real-life roleplaying game turn out?!

Right now, at 30, I feel so many tensions that make me scared, but I also recognize my conscious work to change and grow. I hope that this work has made a difference for you. I hope that the things I’m doing now, the reflecting, the pushing will have some concrete impact on you over there. I hope that it will keep you in this world and that it will keep you fighting. Beyond that, I’m prepared for the winds of life to blow you far and wide. But please at least be there to be present and feel them. And please, if you are there, feel deeply inside yourself for your thirst for justice and inspiration. That’s gotten us far, and if you’ve lost your connection to that, please trust that I have some wisdom too and try to feel for it again.

Throwing all of my love, pain, and fear out there for you to feel again,

Jeremy

My dear Jeremy,

As I’ve been circling around this milestone of my 30th birthday, I’ve been thinking about you often. You know how, even though you’re having doubts about God right now, you still feel like he’s watching over you and judging what you’re doing? It’s funny to say, but now you’ve actually taken over that role for me, in a good way. Perhaps more than anyone else, I feel like you’re accompanying me, observing me, forming opinions about how well I’m living the revolutionary values that you are just now developing. I guess to say it concisely, I feel a unique responsibility to you, and to honor the path that you put me on.

15 years later, I can still feel the surge of energy that you’re now unlocking as you’re exploring spirituality and politics. The decisive break you’ve made from your middle school years, your bullying and the shame around being yourself, still reverberates today. You still inspire me with your hope and your curiosity, and I still feel moments where the world is opening up. A lot has happened, so many things that we didn’t expect–but not actually the things the adults are warning you about!–but I am still here, Jeremy. Though I have faltered, and I have changed, I haven’t grown up in the way we were so scared of…and I certainly haven’t sold out.

Some quick, fun little updates:

Right about now you must be reading that book about the Tiananmen Square movement, right? You’re imagining all of the committees that the students are forming, you’re wondering if you’ll ever be in a committee of your own, or a coop, or a collective. The answer is yes to all three, to the point that now committees feel almost nightmarish in how they seem to spin off into more and more committees! Revolutionary movement work is real, there really are thousands of other people doing it (and the numbers have grown so much since 1996!), and it actually doesn’t feel so precious and exotic anymore. It’s kind of just life now, believe it or not.

I’m still straight-edge! Never smoked, never drank, never tried drugs, and I still don’t plan to. Now, I don’t actually use the term publicly anymore, just because it turns out that a lot of self-proclaimed straight-edge people are real jerks and they don’t have any other political views at all. But I still love my clear thoughts. But something worth noting is that most of the friends you are worried about now actually turned out okay, so some of the judgement and fear was a little harsh.

I do cuss now, though. Leave it to working in a high school to make me start using bad words! I didn’t use them at all until I was already twenty-something, but the reason I started was actually so that I could connect more with high school students that I was working with. Okay, so this is selling out a bit, and I can own up to that. But swearing in front of youth can sometimes be the quickest way to build trust and get to real stuff. AND it’s important to say that I never say any harsh words that are truly hurtful or offensive, like the b-word, n-word, homophobic words, etc.

The acne’s gonna clear up, but the next years are going to be way too rough. I actually often have a beard now! But the posture’s still bad.

You’re right about adults. All the things you suspect about their own confusions, contradictions, and lies are pretty much true. I have seen nothing about getting older that actually automatically makes us adults wiser. Sure, having more experiences and actively learning from them is a real thing, and I do think there are probably a ton of lessons that I’d personally like to teach you. But their attitude of authority is mostly an act, and their warnings about what you need to do correctly, about how to have the best future, are mostly them just passing off what they think they’re supposed to say. Believe me, each night they go home scared and insecure about all the things they’re doing wrong just like you do.

Still no book published. Still can’t speak Mandarin (but I’m studying), but I am fluent in Spanish, my yo-yoing is still great, and I still can ride the unicycle!

I’m married! That’s right, I can’t believe that one either. As I think you are suspecting, love has been harder to find and to feel than it first looked, and our own love story is really something special. I still agree with you about all your critiques of marriage, but this is one area where selling out to immigration law seemed to be important. But yeah, it’s true that love shifts and changes, and maybe there will be some day that this love and this married arrangement doesn’t make sense anymore. But you know there is also the beauty of growing old together with someone, and with a community, and of building a story there. I think this does require a commitment that you express out loud to the people who need to hear it, otherwise, when the things get really hard, insecurity takes over and people can leave for lack of confidence in the future. There is something powerful in a promise that you make year after year and keep…but of course happiness and passion do need to be a priority in there, right?

I still try hard to be friendly and playful. I’m finally rediscovering that lizard smile. I’d lost it for a bit, because there have been some rough times. But overall I think you would like me. And I actually hold myself to that exact standard a lot!

And as many other things I have that I want to update you about, that’s really the point of this letter. I wanted to take just a moment to look inside myself and recognize you. I want to see you with as clear of eyes and memories as possible, and I want to thank you for what you’re doing right now. Thank you so much for the questions you are asking. Thank you for the ways you’re trying to break out of your shell. Thank you for your creativity. Thank you for distrusting the adult line. Thank you for the reading, as hard as it is to make sense of–you’ll actually get quite good at the intellectual work–and thank you for the creative writing. Thank you, especially for feeling so deeply, for your sensitivity and for not letting all the middle school masculinity brutalize it out of you. I needed all of those choices to get here, and I’m really proud of where we’ve gone.

It’s slow and hard, but we are building a revolutionary community. It’s slower than we had wanted, but it’s happening. With poetry and music still woven throughout this life, I feel like I am carrying forward all of the biggest elements of what we had dreamed about. A new society is possible, a better world is possible…and that’s actually the slogan of a movement of hundreds of thousands of people, not just me on the computer alone! It’s so much bigger than we thought it was!

Like Tim will soon tell you, the real world is hard and it will try to crush a little butterfly like us…but these wings are still fluttering. Bruised, for sure, but still fluttering.

I still feel you in there, Jeremy, and I hope that I have been accountable to you in the ways that most matter. I hope that you are proud of me. Because I’m really proud of how you got here.

With just so much love!

Jeremy

In part 1 of this piece–which I wrote more than two years ago–I complained that the way popular education has been, well, popularized in our current movements tends to satisfy itself with a critique of the “banking method” of education and with a desire for “dialogical,” “problem posing,” and participatory education, and how in that self-satisfaction it loses a lot of its richness and useful complexity. I then briefly suggested the concepts of presence and power as potential helpers in deepening grassroots education at the social movement level.

While I don’t want to spend this article writing about Freire and Pedagogy of the Oppressed alone, I do think getting back to that book is a good first step to seeing the untapped potential of the popular education approach. See, in most movement discussions of popular education in which Freire is referenced (and this is actually less of a problem when Myles Horton, Highlander, and the civil rights movement are the reference points, since they were less academic and more rooted in a movement context that is popularly understood), we get really stuck in chapter 2 of that book.

While chapter 2 is great in its discussion of the banking method, student-teacher relationships, and the alternative of dialogical and problem-posing education, there are two other chapters that come after it! In chapter 3 the concepts of minimum thematic universes–systematically mapping out the underlying themes and categories of students-teachers’ experiences and worldviews, and using a team of investigators to develop an in-depth and contextually relevant curriculum–and limit situations–those opportunities when the student-teacher’s own worldview confronts its contradiction with reality and with its own unrealized potential, and thus is pushed to grow and expand the thematic universe–are introduced and, though the elaboration is unnecessarily academic, the ideas are fascinating. Except for AK Thompson’s Black Bloc, White Riot, I don’t think I have seen even a reference to the idea of limit situations in many years. In chapter 4, dialogue is explicitly politicized in a very useful proposal for a change in the way revolutionaries relate and communicate with the masses, going beyond the classroom setting to the movement setting at large.

Like I said, I don’t want to get stuck on Freire, but my point is that, even using this one book as an example, most social movement approaches to popular education are stuck at what I’d consider the tactical level. We are concerned with how participatory the content is in the individual instance of education–almost inevitably the 1 1/2 hour to 2-day workshop–but we spend much less time talking about the long-term strategy of popular education as praxis: as a process of reflection, action, and then more reflection that, over time, transforms ourselves and the world.

This is where I want to go now with this piece. I would like to explore how grassroots educators can deepen popular education at the level of strategic, long-term praxis. I think the concepts of presence and power can aid us here.

Presence: Weaving Revolutionary Curriculum Into the School of Life

I think the best thing that grassroots radical educators can do for ourselves is to de-emphasize the thinking of ourselves as short-term workshop facilitators or classroom instructors and, instead, to more intentionally understand ourselves as long-term (that is, multi-year, multi-decade) accompaniment to both our students and to the movement. That is rather than rooting our understanding of ourselves in these singular (and often repetitive) educational interventions like the workshop, we think about ourselves with a long-view, as organic intellectuals who are present and engaged in praxis with the people around us for a number of years. We see ourselves consciously, systematically weaving educational dialogues and problem posing questions into the years long struggles and changes of our localities, making community life itself our priority area–with classrooms and workshops as tactical tools, but not the core of the thing.

A story to help give this texture:

I worked at Tyee High School for 5 years, alongside my friend Briana Herman-Brand. In that first year we started using political education curriculum with youth as young as 8th grade, usually in 1-4 hour workshop style sessions. At the time, I went through a process that I think many radical educators go through. As the sessions progressed I judged our success based on how much energy and participation I saw, and how dynamically and creatively youth worked with the concepts. I assumed that because it was participatory and that youth engaged so well, that the specific intervention was transformational and revolutionary, and I went home each of those evenings really excited. Then, I’d run into those youth weeks later, and they would still be using oppressive language, fighting, sexually harassing other youth, etc. This was the moment of self doubt in which I started questioning both their abilities to learn and my workshops’ abilities to teach. I would end the year not knowing how successful any of my work had been, especially with the youngest youth, who were particularly all over the place in their reactions.

Well, Facebook can be a beautiful thing! Because now, 7-8 years later, I can reconnect with many of those youth, and a good number of them have explained to me the power of even some of our most unforgettable programs–one of which I had actually completely forgotten!–and it even shows in some of their career choices. One particular young woman, who I had a really hard time working with, just straight up disappeared from my life after her 9th grade year, and then I saw her again back at Tyee 5 years later and she was doing a similar Americorps position to my old job, citing our time with her as an inspiration. As most educators know, the feeling that news like this gives you is priceless.

Education takes time. Building knowledge takes time. That’s why the concept of praxis is so crucial. The workshop, the lecture, even the book are not the fulcrum of education, as I think we know. Life is. Experience is. Our conscious, curricular interventions are just that: interventions into the daily actions and reflections of the people we’re working with. The implications of this, then, is that our interventions can be much more powerful if we can approach them with a long view.

We already know that a weekend long workshop is more effective than a 2 hour workshop. We already know that a 10 week program is better than a weekend workshop. And we know, implicitly, that long-term organizing relationships are the most effective of all. So I think we should put more of our focus and attention there. If we, as radical educators, know that we are committed to a place for at least, say 4 years (even better if it’s more like 10-20), then I think we should work with other similar committed people and really map out a curricular approach that is based on our movement presence over that long period of time.

By movement presence I mean the traditional writings, weekend workshops, guest speakers, 10-week programs, etc., but I also think about long-term mentoring relationships (something I hear a lot about from my friends in the Bay), yearly reflection and commitment-setting events, programs of organizers writing letters to future selves and actually delivering those letters, and the study, mapping, and articulation of the trends that we are observing over the years. How are the winds changing? Where does movement energy seem to be going? Most of us are left guessing on these questions, relying on anecdotal evidence, but this is an area where grassroots educators, along with researchers, could really be helpful!

This is also where inter-generational relationships are so powerful! By maintaining their presence in our communities and our movements, by sticking through all the past dramas and dissolutions, victories and failures, movement elders can offer essential insights to all of us. Though I’m still young, my own 15 years of experience can often be really helpful to younger or less experienced organizers, often in sort of unexpected ways. For example, when younger activists complain about the state of the left and how right wing our culture is, I give them an example of the current events section of Barnes and Noble. When I first starting looking for books at Barnes and Noble in the mid-nineties, I jumped for joy when I could find even a single Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky book. Now, walk into a Barnes and Noble current events section and you can see Naomi Klein, Vijay Prashad, Amy Goodman, the Zapatistas, etc. Not ideal, but a huge shift! (funny/sad sidenote: the New Age section has also grown to overtake the philosophy section) This is just one trend that can be useful to talk about to give context to the growth of the left/progressive forces, but it requires a long term presence to see it.

Presence is also important for radical educators to model because of how hard organizing is, how thankless it can feel. Simply the act of staying in the struggle, still being there after so much hardship, can be inspirational and can give much needed depth to people’s sense of movement commitment. After 9/11 pushed the global justice movement into a sad sort of hibernation, the moments when activists simply came out of their homes to see each other and to see long-standing organizers still doing work was really pivotal in rebuilding and strengthening the anti-war movement.

As a small town person, I’ve always had a deep love for the small town regulars. The old man in Oak Harbor who would wave to passing traffic near the Roller Barn. The Bellingham bus driver who would always start his route with a Simpsons trivia contest. I believe that is a conscious role that radical educators (and really by that I mean all revolution-minded organizers and artists!) should take up. We should be movement regulars; humble, helpful presences who can listen attentively, ask questions, and provide solid educational content that is attuned to the current local context, the key questions that the local movement is facing from year to year.

This can help us to go beyond the repetitive cycle of 101 workshops, and really engage with popular education as the praxis that it’s supposed to be.

I have a lot more that I can say about presence, but these ideas are still feeling pretty raw, pretty first draft. I think I’ll leave it here for now, talk about power next time, and then refine the ideas further in a future pass.

I’m excited. Today I hit level 3 in my real-life video game, and all signs point to me only increasing my commitment to this project until at least the “beta” phase is over at level 10. From there I’m going to re-draft my missions, improve my reward system and point structure, and try and see if I can make it a multi-player game by recruiting a couple other people to play it with me!

But here I want to talk more about why I’m doing this in the first place, and how I’m conceiving of the eventual end of this game.

The purpose of this game is to leverage both my playfulness and my propensity toward game addiction to become a better friend, partner, comrade, organizer, and thinker. It’s about using fun and games as a means of actually helping myself to mature and get more “serious” about the way I want to contribute to the world in my lifetime.

The roots of this are many: I’m getting older (30 on Sunday) and working with youth all day increasingly makes me feel old; I’m responsible for a huge family and will hopefully be a father in the coming year or so; I’m professionally adrift; family finances are a constant hell; I’ve been struggling with politically-rooted depression for a good decade now; and yet I’m still deeply, thoroughly, gut-level committed to building a just and democratic world.

Though there’s always more to learn, of course, I feel like my 15 years of radical struggle now have given me a pretty good idea of the work that I want to be doing, and the kind of social movement participant that I want to be. I’ve made my peace with the fact that I don’t want to be a famous movement superstar (though I do want to write a book or two). I know that I don’t care about professional advancement (except to bring Glendi’s family stability and to fund the movement) and I know that no matter what job I have, I’ll always hate working. I know that I want to be rooted in one geographic region and to slowly foster long-term revolutionary movement building from there. But all this time the sticking point has been the follow-through.

So many years of insecure fumbling. So many hard experiences of failure, followed by months of despondency. So many repeated conversations, promises, proposals. As the stakes have gotten higher and higher (now with lives depending on me being present and responsible), I’ve come to realize that it’s time to really get growing. It’s time to really apply what I’ve learned over the years in a meaningful, consistent way.

Thus, the game. The game is a way of motivating myself–really its more of a manipulation–to do the kind of personal work that I know I need to do to be the organizer and person I want to be. By getting points for participating in social spaces, attending political events, reading, playing, walking, and appreciating the work of friends and comrades, I am building new practices for myself that key off of my already developed triggers of, “just one more game,” and “I’ll quit as soon as I level up.”

The idea was actually inspired by what I’ve seen from people doing Somatics and Trauma work. Their idea, in a nutshell, is that we are sort of made up of our practices, and that those practices are based on years of responses to the world that we live in, so the things that we do that are unhealthy are usually rooted in survival strategies that once worked for us, but which are no longer serving us so well. The trick to growing and changing, then, is to be engaging with our mind-body-spirit (soma…somatics) to develop new, centered practices that can take us toward our values and our commitments. Right on. The problem is there are a whole bunch of reasons why the straightforward somatics practices and groups won’t work for me right now, so I chose to come up with something that could meet me right where I’m at and support me from there.

It’s working. My god it’s working so beautifully.

It’s my hope that in 6 months, 9 months, a year I will have developed and internalized enough new practices that the framing of the game can go away, and I can engage in more social ways of doing this work. Somatics groups? Maybe. Revolutionary organizations? I hope. Revolutionary congregation building? If only!

Of course, if the game does pan out for me, I’ll try to share about it, maybe with a special website, or a small book, or a youtube video or something. I do think it’s fun and creative and could be a help to a lot of other gamer types. But that’s not the point for me.

The point, for me, is entirely personal.

I want to end this game considerably more practiced in the skills and habits that I want to carry with me into fatherhood and old age. Because I know that my ideas and habits will continue to get more ossified with age, I want to make a big offensive right now toward getting myself on a better track. Of course, there is no endgame in trying to be a better person, but I believe there will be a point where I can do it without these wonderful training wheels that the game provides.

Onward to level 4, then level 10, and then version 2.0 of the game!

This past Sunday, I got to have a really nice–though too brief–phone conversation with a good friend of mine, in which my friend gave me warming praise for my revolutionary congregation writing, as well as a lovably packaged critique. The critique went something like this: “I like your writing and I’d love to read what you think about ablism. Its absence seems pretty stark in your posts.” Now, in my opinion, that is a skillful critique. Positive, engaging someone with an interest in their opinion, while also pushing them to grow further into their values. Magnificently done.

And my friend was absolutely right. I had actually been triggered to a similar thought in Part 1 of the congregations piece, when I mentioned churches having disability accessible spaces–I began thinking about how lonely that one little mention of ablism is in this whole blog of mine. And with my friend’s push on Sunday, I’ve decided to do something about that. I’ve started re-reading Eli Clare’s work, and my co-worker Sunny just let me borrow their Disability Studies reader from college. I do think the absence is stark, and I can bodily feel that it’s deliberate. Similar to my absence of deep discussion around transphobia and trans liberation, ablism is one of those areas where I get physically uncomfortable talking about it, both because of the trickiness of language and the fear of speaking wrongly, as well as the lack of time and energy that I’ve put into studying it.

The absence is particularly jarring for me because I really agree with an important theoretical observation that I believe my friend Bruin (was it you, Bruin?) made to me: that ablism is the canary in the social movement coalmine. The idea is that if a social movement or a movement organization fails to make good space for people with disabilities, that is a strong negative sign for the long-term sustainability or liberatory quality of said movement. I think this observation is brilliant, just totally right on. Because the same skills and structures that it takes an organization to be less ablist are much the same skills and structures that make it responsive to issues of abuse and sexual violence, to issues of self-care and burnout, and to issues of power hoarding and space sharing. They are the skills of patience, consideration, listening, and caring. Particularly because of the vast diversity of disabilities that exist in our current society, the flexibility that our movements require to meet the anti-ablism challenge is powerful preparation for the flexibility that our movements need for thousands of other issues and tactical challenges as well.

Okay, so if I really totally believe this, then why such a low prioritization of study and work on ablism? Hypocrisy, of course! While I believe it theoretically, I think that I’m embodying the contrary, ablist reaction of thinking that addressing ablism is too hard, that it’s not worth prioritizing, that it’s not a core issue…and even that god-awful default defense of the status quo: that talking too much about ablism is divisive. Additionally, in my secondary reaction to my friends critique I found myself thinking, “but that’s not an issue I know about or have experience with, that’s something that other people are blogging about.”

It’s this last thought that I want to talk about today, with the other stuff coming later as I read more.

It’s incredible how, in the areas where we are privileged or where a deeper critique frightens us, we can ignore constantly lived realities that are staring us in the face. That’s the case with ablism. I seriously can’t believe that I think ablism is not an issue that I’m dealing with, when actually it’s all around me!

First of all, my own chemical sensitivities, and the fact that almost all perfumes and chemical smells give me an instant headache…and thus that I have headaches weekly.

Then, there’s the youth organization where I work, and the deeply challenging politics of unspoken and unseen learning disabilities and how youth hide them, but then are lightly teased about their behavior…but it’s never politicized beyond calling out the teasing, and we adults don’t know what to do because we don’t want to put a youth on blast by naming it as ablism, but then it also never gets talked about. This has been an issue for years, and I think about it every time certain youth are in the office, but our inaction and our lack of strategizing around it is actually pretty terrible!

There is my last post about being put into gifted programs at a young age…and the whole flipside of that of people who I’ve loved who were put into remedial programs, medicated, sent to tutors, etc. Their experience also made me hate the system that separated us…yet I never considered it ablism??

There is Glendi’s hospitalization, the months of healing afterwards, and the patience I occasionally lost as the weeks of taking care of her went on. And there’s that question that Glendi hoarsely voiced the day after the emergency, about whether she was broken.

There is Glendi’s friend and college classmate in Guatemala who, after a bus accident 6 years ago, is paraplegic and who lives in this tight, winding little cobblestone alley and almost never leaves her house…and has been systematically shut out of the teaching profession that she was previously in.

There are my friends who write and talk and think brilliantly about disability and ablism, but who are also living much deeper realities ablism than I am. I think about them, and I think about supporting them, but it’s sadly typical that I haven’t take the step of really applying the politics beyond it being something that’s sort of “their thing.”

Then, there is the really, really big reality. The daily family issue. The unspoken tension underneath much of the suffering in our Guatemala family. There is Glendi’s dad’s condition. As a man with type-2 diabetes who now also faces kidney failure, he has been unable to work for 3 years now, and the pain and shame of him not being able to contribute financially to his family has been a defining frame this whole time. In the mix of poverty and manhood and rural pride, the ablism piece has been there this whole time, but I’ve been missing it! All of the embarrassment that gets expressed, the exasperation with life and the questioning of what living really means. The softly spoken question, so wrapped up in ablism, of when is the time to give up, stop operating, pull the plug. And for us, with the economic power in the situation, to miss this piece is profound. Man, this is big.

This is bringing up a lot of questions for me, and a lot of feelings. But I think this is the point where I need to quiet down, do more work, and do more reading. This was sort of just a first clearing of the lot lot before building the foundation. The additional building will come slowly.

I am so thankful to my friend for the push to be thinking about this, and I’m excited for Eli Clare’s Exile and Pride to arrive in the mail. As hard as it can be sometimes to overcome the initial hump of defensiveness, I love realizing the places where I need to stretch myself and grow.

I have been giddy about the amount of writing that I’ve been doing over the last couple of weeks, and I’ve been especially excited about the parallel increase in my reading, walking, listening to music, social activity, and attendance at political events. I’m kind of just feeling great in general these days, and it’s so refreshing.

I have felt a little bit weird, however, because I was writing a post every day and the last two days I didn’t write anything. In part this is because I’m working on a critical review of AK Thompson’s book, Black Bloc, White Riot; but it’s also just because I wanted to take a break for a few days and see how it felt.

Nevertheless, I have a lot of things that I’m working on for this week and next:
-The review of Black Bloc, White Riot (which will also touch a lot on the question of violence in political struggle)
-A piece reflecting my current relationship to ablism in my personal life and movement work (prompted by a nice, loving poke from a friend of mine about the stark absence of discussions of ablism in my writing)
-An update on my real life video game, a discussion of my cool new rewards system, and my anticipated “endgame”
-A return to my piece on Presence, Power, and Popular Education (once again thanks to AK Thompson’s book)
-A reflective letter to myself on the event of my 30th birthday (this Sunday!)

I doubt I’ll get all of these done, and I also expect some spontaneous writing, but it helps me to set my aspirations out there in public, particularly because I’m now using this site pretty consciously to slowly prepare myself to write for publication.

But this discussion of my posts brings me to something I want to write about briefly here: the personal damage that growing up as a straight-A student and in gifted programs did to me.

It was really hard to go two days this week without writing anything for this blog. I had committed myself to write a post a day–even though I think such a goal is probably not even healthy or useful anyway–and when I couldn’t keep up with that I got caught in the same downward spiral I always get caught in: if I can’t do it flawlessly from day one, then it’s not meant for me and I should quit.

This is something that I’ve had within me since at least 3rd grade. It’s something I internalized from being put in a gifted program at that age, and then all of the praise that I received since. I came to believe really deeply that a truly talented and intelligent person 1) does everything right on the first try, and 2) doesn’t ever ask anyone for help.

This is what caused me to cry right in the student lounge of my high school when I got my only A- (which I later got changed through extra work). It’s what’s caused me to walk away from every single writing project I’ve ever started after the first draft…because the idea of it needing changes was a sign to me that it wasn’t worth publishing in the first place. It’s what keeps me hoarding all of my ideas for years because I never think they’re ready to share.

While obviously being treated like I was smart and being encouraged and thrown resources has done wonders for me since childhood, and it gave me all of the key opportunities that have led me to my life now, I still need to acknowledge this damage. The damage is real, and it’s profound. It pops up sometimes in the weirdest places of my life. It’s definitely a part of my cycles of depression. It’s also an underlying cause of the anti-social elements of my personality that I discussed a couple of days ago; not just that I was taught a kind of arrogance, but I was also taught to not show my full self because of the flaws it might uncover. Further, it completely colors all of my family dynamics.

Since high school I’ve tried to break this internalization apart: in all of the times I dropped out of school…my GED, the 4-5 times I dropped out of college, the choosing of low-paying jobs that focused on social justice, etc. I tried to believe that I was over it, but I definitely am not. This blog has actually helped a lot, and my job, relationships, and organizing have also taught me a ton (because I’ve needed to learn to stay present and learn lessons from mistakes in all of those areas, without purity and self-flagellation). But there is still work to do. And preparing myself more intentionally to try publishing my writing is going to be a big step.

So in the end I’m really glad that I could go two days without writing and then come back today (I almost gave up, to be honest). I need to better learn the skill of making mistakes in my intellectual work, in sharing incomplete thoughts, in hearing and then responding to feedback, etc.

I’m so glad I haven’t given up. I feel myself on the verge of really beautiful growth that’s been a long time in waiting. I don’t want my internalized needs for purity and personal perfection to sabotage these possibilities. This time, I want to grow in messiness.

Patience Is a Faith-Based Initiative…

Here in the few remaining moments we have left,
just what do you propose we say in our defense?
That much was decided before any one of us were born?
That we were nothing more than objective observers to the madness
and throw up your hands in sadness?
“We’re powerless to change anything anyways.”
So just lay back upon your death bed
and gaze idiotically back up the chain of command
from which we receive our directives.
I guess it’s just common sense to preach
what ought to be but ensure it never is in the present tense
–Propagandhi, Last Will and Testament

There are nights where it feels right and true to approach change as a patient builder, with a plan of struggle that will take decades. I can sleep soundly and wake up motivated in the morning. But then there are nights like tonight. I can’t sit still, I can’t feel comfortable in my body thinking about the possibility that I might die without seeing some real measure of justice and equality in this world. It’s like the day after a sunburn, that unbearable itch after the pain…I can’t just go to bed with this feeling.

I talked to Glendi–who’s in Guatemala right now–on the phone this evening, and it looks like it’s time to send money again. Her dad is without pills, there is no food, her siblings’ school projects are lacking materials, and they are behind on paying for the new water project we just raised money for. Nunca alcanza, nuuuuunca alcanza. It’s never enough. And for my lovely, fierce Glendi, that means that she never gets peace…not even on the night that she herself almost died did she get peace.

And I can’t take this. Can’t we put the struggle on fast forward, skip to the part where we win? Can it really be that we’re still somewhere in the first act, and the disc keeps skipping backward? And so in the meantime does that mean that all these millions of families have to keep trying to play tricks on tragedy each day in order to see the next?

I have a hard time with militancy. I abhor violence and violent rhetoric. But there is no denying this sharp edge that comes out, like retracting claws, when nights like this come along.

I know the theory from many angles why guns and seizures of power will not bring the justice that we need. But that just means that our other ways–our building and constructing and fighting with moral force and creative nonviolence–had better be that much better…relentless…focused.

Atheist or not, tonight I cling to this faith with a desperation matching any churchgoer: that there will be some redemption for this pain that doesn’t leave them…that there will be peace within a hard-won justice for at least the young twins by the time they are grandparents. And instead of praying for it, I write for it here…with the feeling that it’s echoing futilely off into the silence just the same.

“How many times have I wondered if it is really possible to forge links with a mass of people when one has never had strong feelings for anyone, not even one’s own parents: if it is possible to have a collectivity when one has not been deeply loved oneself by individual human creatures. Hasn’t this had some effect on my life as a militant–has it not tended to make me sterile and reduce my quality as a revolutionary by making everything a matter of pure intellect, of pure mathematical calculation?” –Antonio Gramsci

I was so struck by this quote when I first read it in 1999, that I remember just wanting to envelope dear old Antonio in a great, warm hug. I wanted to embrace him in a way that could communicate my soul deep recognition of what he was expressing. I wished dearly, regardless of the distance of time, language, place, and mortality, that we could be best friends. I felt, at that time, that he was speaking words that I couldn’t dare to admit to myself, but which I felt and was acting out to disastrous effect in all of my relationships.

Now 12 years later, I re-read the quote in AK Thompson’s Black Block, White Riot (that’s gonna have to be a subject of another, post), and I am struck by something else: I have changed so much as a social and emotional person, that the quote no longer feels like it speaks to me at all. Though elements remain, I am not the loner kid that I once was. And, even though it’s pure geeky fantasy, I smile a little imagining that my good comrade Tony Gramsci has been evolving alongside me as well.

How did this happen? What shifted and at what speed? Truth is, I hadn’t even realized the change until I thought about this quote. I assumed that I was still the same socially awkward person I’ve always been, and that’s still I how talk about it most of the time. But that’s less and less my reality. In fact, increasingly over the last, what, maybe 8 years, I feel like I’ve been so full of love for the people–even the enemies and strangers–around me that…well… like this:

“Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart’s going to cave in.”–From American Beauty

I’d like to take a few paragraphs here to investigate this wonderfully gradual transformation of pretty much the core of who I am.

The Hermit Who Got Radical

As far back as I can remember, I’ve preferred to be alone. Growing up, I so loved talking to myself and pacing around my back yard, weaving my own narratives with my own characters, that I had very little interest in friends. Even until 11 or 12 years old, I remember there were school kids who wanted to be my friends and who I’d have slumber parties with and stuff, but I also distinctly remember getting to a point after an hour or two of playing that I’d just send them home, so that I could let the game unfold how I wanted it to by myself.

It was at that time, at 12 in 7th grade, that I started making up my imaginary stories about the utopian hidden islands where there was no money, no poverty and homelessness, and no destructive technology. My first hint of anti-capitalist thought.

By 13 and 14, I was pretty sure that I was going to be a hermit…running away to the woods in my favorite park at McHugh Creek in Alaska, living in a cabin with a typewriter, Thoreau style. At Steller Secondary School, I got introduced to Eastern philosophy, and I decided instead that I wanted to be some kind of monk, a Siddhartha. Enter the critique of the material world, add a few readings about capitalism and the destruction of the soul, and soon I’m getting into socialism and anarchism.

And thinking back about my social life and my early radicalism, it’s so humorously sad the way I thought about it: the people all around me felt so boring and shallow and mean, so dull and uninspiring…but if only we could have a revolution, then maybe everyone would be into poetry and philosophy, imagination and learning like I was. In short it was, “I’ll finally have people worth being friends with after the revolution.”

Yet from middle school through high school I did have friends, and some really great ones. I have lifelong memories, and deep appreciations for all that we shared together. But back then I so rarely had them over to my house, I so rarely thought about their emotional realities, and I didn’t really think of myself as having them in my life forever. It was just gonna be until I ran away or moved on. Girlfriends and crushes just the same, or even worse.

And when tragedy struck, when an ex-student died, when my mentor was exiled away after serious scandal, when a member of our friend group committed suicide, even after my grandma died until the moment of her funeral…my tears wouldn’t come. I’d try to convince myself of the importance, of the ethics of crying, but it didn’t happen. I didn’t know for sure if I even cared. I was really quite terrified that I didn’t care at all. And it also often annoyed me that other people seemed to cry and care so openly.

In college, the WTO protests, summit hopping, revolutionary collectives and the feeling of imminent social transformation…and it was also my lowest time, as I was a terrible friend, a cold co-organizer, and an even worse relationship partner. I was charming, inspiring, and I made lots of people want to be close to me, and I treated them all like they weren’t serious, deep, or revolutionary enough to see the best of who I was. Although there’s always been a part of me that’s been deeply sensitive and empathetic, for some reason I wasn’t really good at applying those skills in close quarters. It broke down when it involved actual one-on-one interaction and vulnerability. I remember feeling so lonely, so unappreciated…but really I was just a big jerk who didn’t see the wealth of love, intelligence and goodwill all around me.

And the Grinch’s Heart Grew Three Times Bigger That Day

I can’t believe it…really I’m almost embarrassed to realize it…but 9/11 changed everything. In the climate of repression, depression, and demobilization that followed, and the social and political vacuum that it created, something got tweaked within me. My radical community in Bellingham was torn asunder, I was depressed in my relationship, and I didn’t know or want to meet anyone in my new town of Seattle. And in the deep marginalization I felt by the right wing surge, I feared that I had lost some of the best comrades and allies that I had yet known.

It was in my first year of doing work at Tyee High School, when a young man felt the trust to come out to me for the first time in his life, that I think I noticed that my heart had changed. I remember being alone and stuck in traffic on I-5, thinking about this young man and his fears for his manhood, his future, his family, and yet his excitement at finally admitting it someone else…and I, of course, broke down crying. But I think it said as much about me as it did about him, as I remember thinking, “oh my god, other people have whole complex emotional lives and struggles just like I do…and this is what it feels like to let them in.” A raging, frackin’ beautiful torrent…cold and foamy river water just rushing over you, as you let someone else’s reality connect with yours. Oh my god…I-It becomes I-Thou. It was so sharply memorable. And I felt so much poorer for not having felt it more in earlier years.

But it was just a moment. Slowly over the next 5 years came other moments. Brief punctures through my numbed-out, computer addicted haze of 2001-2009. Guatemala, of course, and my blog were powerful forces for emotional connection. Losing vital and complicated friendships, and leaving my lovely Tyee. Finding Glendi, of course, was another one, but even there the learning came slowly. Learning to love consciously, on the daily, is a wickedly beautiful journey.

But to talk about this without talking about feminism would be a farce. Because parallel with all of this story is the story of being challenged by women in my life, by reading and organizing with other men, by seeing the realities of gender violence, and struggling with my own internalized definitions of manhood. This was an undeniable prerequisite to me being able to access and move through my emotions in these years. This is, in so many ways, a story of gender redefinition, and the discovery of new ways to be a man. That wall, that shield, that barrier that I had learned from my dad, my brother, my uncles…it was such a big part of what’s needed to come down in order for the real complexity of relationship and community to be able to rise up in me.

And here in 2011, in a life that is now dominated by supporting others, sending money to others, offering care and closeness to others, I just feel so differently than I did all those years ago. I feel immersed in a politics and identity of affection. Still, I need my time alone. Still, I flake regularly on my friends’ phone calls and emails. Still, I go off by myself and talk to myself and spin imaginary narratives. I don’t think there’s any coincidence in the fact that I do this kind of writing most when Glendi’s in Guatemala and I’m alone all night in the house. And still, my solitude is my best friend, without question. But at the same time, I feel my relationships so much more. I feel the struggles and the insecurities and the desires of those around me…like feeling the subtle thread of a spider web with your own hands, whereas before you were wearing boxing gloves.

I feel full to bursting with love, and that is now what keeps me thinking and dreaming of revolution. Where before I wanted everyone to change for me so that I could enjoy them more, now I want everything to change for us, so that we can all share in the beauty of this thing together. The mathematical calculations are still present, and valuable, but they are now knitted with intimacy and care.

And that has given me a freedom, too, to grieve for those old losses that I couldn’t tear up for back in the day. To all those I’ve lost to get this learning: I miss you and I’m sorry it’s always been taking so long.

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi