Describe Your Relationship to Work

I’m currently working on an application to go be facilitated at School of the Alternative, which is a really cool-sounding self directed program for adults. I’m feeling really inspired by one of the application questions, and wanted to share my thinking about it.

Describe your relationship to work.

I think of my [professional] work [at school with the kids] in cyclical relationship with my personal [self-care-and-growth] work. I’m learning to listen for the invitations and prompts they offer me; I’ve discovered children have an uncanny ability to ask me flat-out the questions I didn’t know I was avoiding: “How do you practice magic?” or “What does it mean to release something?” or “Do you consider yourself to be a cisgender person?” These aren’t hypothetical; they’re all real questions, asked of me by real kids. Learning to recognize these questions as invitations, not challenges to my authority is one kind of work; the work of discovering the answers is another.

I’ve been thinking about how being alive means that my meat is generating and consuming electric and kinetic and potential energy all the time. I’ve been thinking about how, in the spiral of time, I’m the same person I was as a child and how I will never be that person again. I’ve been thinking about how the universe is both infinite and expanding; the thing that is, by definition, the largest possible thing, is still getting bigger.

Some days I am tired, or my mental illness is loud, or my need for rest is urgent; learning to respond to those feelings with patience and kindness is also work. Sometimes work feels like the right verb and sometimes it feels deeply insufficient; regardless, it’s the language that feels good right now. The work is the work of being curious and present in pleasure and pain, of being embodied and creative and stretching my limits, reaching, growing, unfurling. In physics, work is a transfer of energy; it’s when a force causes a displacement in an object. That means the opposite of work is not play, it’s stasis. To work is to live.

On Facilitating in Your Joy

Looking back through this blog, I see myself working through a lot of hard feelings around facilitation; while that’s a big part of this work, it’s definitely not all of it. I want this blog to be an accurate reflection of my life in ALC-land, struggles and joys alike, and so today I intend to course-correct a bit.

I can feel it in my body when I’m facilitating in my joy; I feel the bubbling right below my solar plexus. I’m facilitating in my joy when we’re barefoot in the gym first thing Monday morning and the sun is streaming in through the windows and we’re playing a game of tag where everyone is it and we’re shrieking and chasing and rock-paper-scissoring and throwing the same hand sign over and over.

I’m facilitating in my joy upside down on the floor in Gratitudes, laughing helplessly with a teenager, laughing so hard we can’t even look at each other, because someone surprised us my elaborating on an inside joke and our faces are so red and every time one of us makes a little sigh and tries to stop we make eye contact and set off laughing again.

I’m facilitating in my joy in the library, curled up on the denim couch, reading a kid a book, or in the red room on a rainy day watching one of my favorite movies (Star Wars, or Harry Potter, or Howl’s Moving Castle) and I get to see a strange, fantastical world that I love as if for the first time, again.

I’m facilitating in my joy when I share a surprising fact (oooh how I love surprising facts) and a kid’s face lights up and they say really??? I’m facilitating in my joy when these roles are reversed.

I’m facilitating in my joy at the park, any park, and the sun is shining.

I’m facilitating in my joy when riffing on existential questions, or the nature of time, or surprised on the subway by an unexpectedly deep “this or that” from a kid I didn’t know was contemplating the metaphysical.

I’m facilitating in my joy when there’s paint between my toes.

I’m facilitating in my joy sitting deliberately out of sight, doing something with my hands to make myself invisible (crochet, or sketching) and listening to kids play with each other; co-create worlds with their Lego or tend the hamster in age-mixed clusters or…

I’m facilitating in my joy making up a dance outside the deli, or down the hallway, or after the big collective feast of Dancegiving with the music all the way up.

Playing in language facilitates my joy.

I’m facilitating in my joy on the subway, at the museum, on the rock climbing wall, in a bookstore or public library or exploring the zine collection, on the ferry, at the beach, under the Brooklyn Bridge, overlooking the East River, moving from island to island of this strange wondrous city and getting to taste and touch and see it all for the first time: the dumplings in Chinatown, the silver dome of the park at Union Square, the belly of the Great Blue Whale at my favorite childhood museum.

Facilitating in your joy is the goal, right? I’ve been thinking about it since I listened to the 2019 Panel on SDE and Racial Equity out of Heartwood ALC last week – which you can find and listen to here. (It’ll blow your mind.)

Of course not all of the facilitating I do comes from that place of joy; I’m still working through the shit from a childhood that wasn’t self-directed, where joy was not the goal. And that’s important work, no doubt. But joy is the work, too, joy is the medicine, joy is co-creating movement towards the world I want to live in. Thanks for witnessing <3

On Kindness, and the Soft Animal of My Body

“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” -Mary Oliver

I’m trying to be kind. It’s difficult, because the word is tied up in the abstracted character-building of my childhood. Around the atrium of my intermediate school there were a series of child-shaped cutouts, each emblazoned with different value: respect, responsibility, kindness. I stood below them for the unveiling – one each month, as we passed through the first year of the school. The building was new, the star-shaped entrance hall vaulted with red-framed skylights and walled in postmodern grey brick. A group of us were selected (though I don’t remember how, or for what reason) to be the Character Ambassadors; we would gather in the center of the hall as a janitor climbed the ladder and hung the silhouettes and we went through the motions of ceremony. I remember feeling self conscious about my hair, my body, my new glasses. I don’t remember what was said about the characters.

When I think about being kind, the part of me that stood through that ceremony and tried, after, to fit in with the childscorn of cool that was budding in the girls’ room and the cafeteria, that young, confused part of me crystalized under those cutouts and in the gossipstreams after, still scoffs. What’s the point of kind?

Here’s what I really learned in that year as Character Ambassador: how to shrink my self to fit into the crowd. That it was fine to be honored but not too honored. Okay be special as long as I did not make my self a target with my specialness; if the crowd realized I wasn’t part of it they would eat me on the bus in the girls’ room on the line for lunch. Even with my careful observation and the one act of brutality with which I shrunk myself, even when I thought I understood the rules of how to be among and invisible, I felt myself a failure. Instead of kindness, I learned too much about the power of those who fit in over those who transgress. Instead of kindness, I learned to marshall my intellect to focus my body on performing my role correctly. Instead of kindness, I learned conformity.

Almost two decades later, the characters are still hanging there. The laminated poster paper has faded under the sky light – kindness is no longer true blue but stormy grey.

I haven’t thought about being 10 in a long time. I’ve thought abstractly about my childself over the course of the last few years, ALFing and deschooling, sure. But thinking about the child I was at 10 years old, standing in the atrium of C.V. Starr Intermediate School feels shockingly concrete – the kid whose flute was perpetually at the wrong parent’s house, who loved the quiet of art class and the intimacy of music lessons, the newly-bespeckled one whose mind drifted while we read aloud in class because I’d already read the whole page, whole chapter, whole novel and I was just counting the minutes until we were done with this interminable readaloud exercise. 10 is first time in my life I can begin to remember feeling wrong in my body, the beginning of a self consciousness that did not originate with me but that I wrapped around my own bones nonetheless. The lessons in the atrium stuck, but not the ones that were intended to.

This is the point at which I feel compelled to tell you that I am an anxious, depressed trans person living in chronic pain; that those are clinical (and therefore somehow validated?) identities. Five years ago, I fell down a flight of stairs and injured my spine. Three years ago, I developed crippling eczema that makes the skin on my hands flake off and break open. One year ago, I realized with a shock that I am not a cisgender woman. I am talking to you about kindness not out of virtuousness, but selfishness; I don’t want to live in pain any more. All the years of punishing myself have come to a head and my body has said no more. It will not tolerate my bruising, fixated intellectualism any more; it will not let me push aside my discomfort in order to fit in. This is the limit of tolerance: nearly two decades of making myself less, for fear of being too much.

As the brilliant Sonia Renee Taylor reminds us in The Body Is Not An Apology, “You, my dear, have a body. And should you desire to remain on this spinning rock hurtling through space, you will need a body to do it.” This isn’t about the state of my soul, though winter does bring, for me, an existential dimension to all these musings. This is about the soft animal of my body, and what it means to be kind to it.

Some days I am angry at the choices I made based on the lessons of the atrium, angry that I live in this pain. I am trying to honor my anger, to exorcise it. Some days I mourn the sense of safety, dignity, and belonging that that I don’t feel. I am trying to honor my grief, to exorcise it. I am trying to be kind. To value my flesh enough to feed it well, to smooth salve over the places I’ve cracked open, to sleep and stretch and wrap my self in soft, heavy blankets and feel the sensuousness of their weight and texture here, in this body, now.