Mercury Retrograde: a Review

It’s been a weird few weeks, y’all, and I’m blaming Mercury retrograde. You’ve probably heard of this astrological phenomenon, since it’s sucked up into pop culture in recent years. That may be because it happens fairly often – three times a year, for a few weeks at a time – but I think it’s because it’s really, truly annoying. Mercury is the planet that rules communication, travel, technology, and commerce, and when it goes retrograde (appears to move backwards in the sky) it makes those things go wonky – tech malfunctions, communication goes awry and travel gets snarled.

Retrograde GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

when a planet goes retrograde it appears to move backwards in the sky because of the relative locations of their orbit and Earth’s

The wifi has been in and out of functioning for no apparent reason all morning, here at ALC-NYC, and I’ve been in and out of a not-fight with a friend for three weeks now. On Monday, I got to the train station to find that my metrocard expired, and all three of the machines at my station were only accepting cash. Luckily, I had enough cash for a single ride, but not for the monthly unlimited card that I rely on. When I swiped the card at the turnstile, though, it told me to swipe card again at this turnstile… and then it told me that I had an insufficient fare. I went and argued with the stationmaster about it, and they opened the gate to let me in. Then I went to school, did a whole day, and forgot about it – until I got on the bus in the afternoon. I swiped 2 different (empty) metrocards, shrugged at the driver and got on the bus. When I got to 86th street to transfer to my train, I thought to myself finally, I’ll be able to get my unlimited and I won’t have to deal with this any more. But, of course, none of the machines at 86th street were working either – every one of the (seven!!!!) machines at the station were only selling single rides. Knowing it’s Mercury retrograde helped me find a sense of amusement about it as I bought a single ride, explained what was happening to a tourist, and swiped into the station just in time to miss my train.

Mercury retrograde is annoying, but it’s not just an annoyance. It forces us to slow day, and slowing down things we take for granted makes us notice them – like how I discovered that I could, in fact, hold boundaries with my anxious brain on my Mercury retrograde journey to Australia last year.

I’ve been spending a lot of time, this retrograde, with my old notebooks and past selves – 25 books worth of them. I got sick the first week, and was forced to slow down all the way to a halt. I spent 4 straight days in my apartment, sitting with my changing selves. It is still loud in my head, but not a cacophonous as it once was, I’m noticing.

As I record my present selves – in free writes, in staff check in notes, in journals and reflections on tarot cards, in blog posts – and the data available to me about my patterns piles up, becomes several-cycles-worth of observations, I can see my self getting better at slowing down. I can trace the path of learning to hold my paradoxes: all of my thoughts are valid, even if they are not all as urgent as my brain would have me believe.

It’s a shift that I didn’t notice until this retrograde-review-cycle, but it’s been a seismic one. It didn’t start now, but now is when I can finally feel it: not all of my strongest thoughts and feelings are urgent and need to be acted on. It’s really hard for me to just sit with them – to not go racing down the mental track of contingency plans and what-ifs and hypothetical conversations – but it is possible. When I read my traveling-to-Australia-through-Mercury-retrograde thoughts I can see the buds that are now flowering – I can’t wait to discover the buds under this flower when I check back with this post in a year, or five, or ten…

Where Have You Been?

We’re back at it! It’s the first full week of school after a wild, adventurous summer of travel; I’m in the library hosting Writing Time and enjoying the magic of shared quiet writing together (it actually took me a week to write this blog post – it’s very long. Be warned). It’s my third year as an ALF here at ALC-NYC, and I’m excited to get to documenting that, but first I needed to get this post out of my head. I did so many magical things this summer that I want to share; I want to acknowledge all the ways that this summer challenged me, gifted me joy, shifted my perspective. I traveled for 7 weeks, all told – longer than I’d ever been away from New York in my whole life! Ready? (I wasn’t.)

Mt. Hood, from the plane

First, I flew to Portland, where I stayed with a friend who I hadn’t seen in a long time and her two rad pooches. Portland was a really car-dependent city, which I didn’t love, but they have the largest bookstore I’d ever been to in my life, which I did! Powell’s books is so massive, it’s like 4 Strands put together! I wound up spending an entire day there, meandering through the children’s books and the science fiction section, spending hours picking through some dense astrology texts in the cafe with an excellent cup of tea.

Marie Ponsot and a book about Saturn (in retrograde all summer…) and a beautiful cup of green tea in my happy place

I was grateful to get to start this journey off with some intense introvert time – basically 3 straight days where the only thing to do was whatever I wanted. Coming off of ALF Summer NYC and knowing that I would be spending the next 6 straight weeks with people, I took advantage of the solo time to process, reorient, recalibrate myself; what does it mean to take care of me? If I can do whatever I want, what is it that I want?

The answer was, obviously, read books but also: lots of nature stuff! Exploring the Hoyt Arboretum and International Rose Test Garden, specifically, drawing and painting and taking pictures and breathing in the good air. Swimming in the Williamette River. Eating ice cream made with locally foraged berries. (The last one is maybe a stretch but it was delicious…)

at the Hoyt Arboretum, under the Firs

From Portland, I took a train intended for San Francisco. I love train travel; between the slow, steady motion, the scenery, and the other people on the train, I find it’s a really creative place for me. This trip, however, was not destined to be a smooth one. We left Portland at 2 in the afternoon and traveled steadily throughout the day, among the pines of the Cascades, along the river, through sunset and twilight and under the nearly-full red-faced moon. I fell asleep, looking forward to waking up the next morning at my destination, but a scant hour later I woke abruptly to the woman in the seat behind me yelling about FIRE!

Not only was there a wildfire up ahead (the Carr fire, which would go on to burn for 38 days across 358 square miles, destroying 1600 structures and claiming three lives) but it had jumped the Sacramento river and our next stop – the northern California city of Redding – was literally on fire.

The train hesitated there, on the border, overnight and I sat up and waited, stomach roiling, for confirmation of the rumor that we would be turning around and going back the way we came. Eventually it became clear confirmation wasn’t forthcoming that night, and I bought a plane ticket from Eugene, OR anyway, despite my gut uncertainty-discomfort. It would becoming a familiar feeling over the course of my travels; the discomfort decreased every time I chose to move in uncertainty.

Finally, I fell asleep, and woke up the next morning to the news we were, in fact, going back to where we’d come from. While I certainly wouldn’t be arriving in San Francisco when I had originally intended, there was nothing I could do about it. Mercury was in retrograde, after all, and at this point I’ve certainly had plenty of experience with travel trouble during Mercury retrograde. 5 hours later, 23 hours after I left Portland, I got off the train in Eugene.

on the train, at hour 20, headed back to where I came from…

From Eugene I got a flight to San Francisco, where I met up with Abby and Nahla in Oakland. We spent the next three days running around the bay – exploring murals, bookstores, and apothecaries, strolling across a bridge to Alameda island into a street fair, riding the ferris wheel, admiring the bougainvilleas, walking through a tunnel-portal, taking the ferry around the bay, laughing in a cloud, scrambling around the ruins of the Sutra Baths. I enjoyed San Francisco immensely, though I hadn’t quite packed for the weather…

The ruins of the Sutro Baths, in SF

From there we decided to take a day jaunt to Lake Tahoe before ALF Summer Sacramento – we rented a car and drove across the (increasingly hazy) state to the mountains. Nahla and Abby had been to Tahoe before, but I never had. We arrived at the Sierra Nevada just as the sun was setting, so we did most of the climb in the dark, through the pines. The smell of smoke grew thicker in the air the further east we drove – not because of the fire that had caused my earlier turnaround but because Yosemite was also on fire. I had hoped to see the stars, but no luck.

We spent the night in a motel and the next morning we went to a watersport rental place and rented jet skis! None of us had ever ridden them before and we had a blast – Nahla and I on one jet ski and Abby on the other. The visibility was low because of the smoke, and I’d like to go back sometime when I can see more – it was hard to get a sense of how giant the lake was (although we did spend a lot of time driving around it, so I do have some idea). After jet skiing, we swam in the water – clear and cool and so refreshing. I later learned that Tahoe was formed almost 2 million years ago, when the earth’s crust puckered and formed the mountains. It felt like that being there; I felt held by the water and the earth.

Post-jetski family photo which does not at all do justice to how stunning the overlook was

After Tahoe we drove to Sacramento for ALF Summer! It was a blast – in part because the program was a perfect mix of humans I knew and humans I got to meet for the first time. Our first night in Sacramento we got to stay with Mia, her dad and her sweet puppers, Ala and Bama. After a day of water sports and highway driving, we were quite frazzled and so, so grateful for Mia’s hospitality as we collapsed into human puddles.

After the night at Mia’s, Abby, Nahla, and I drove over to the AirBnb where we’d spend the rest of the week with a crew of rad people: Antonio (of Abrome, in Austin, TX), Mercer and Joe, who came for the first few days of the program, and then Lavonne and Binairbah, who flew all the way out from NYC just to attend bonus week! We had so much fun cooking, eating macaroon ice-cream sandwiches, watching Steven Universe, singing along to Hamilton, and playing Cards Against Humanity (which Mercer had never played before, and cracked me up by cracking herself up with her own jokes. Such a Leo). As an introvert, facilitating all day can be really draining, and facilitating with adults doubly so; I’m grateful that I got to stay in this particular houseful of people, both because they were supportive and joyful company, and because they were super understanding when I needed to retreat into my room and close the door to recharge.

ALF Summer itself was an inspirational, productive, fun, creative, challenging whirlwind. I’m particularly grateful to Beth, Mia, and Emily, Spence, and all the Free to Learn kiddos for their enthusiasm, playful groundedness, and support facilitating the program. Listing to Nahla talk about deschooling was definitely a highlight for me, as was doing Acro with Mia, Emily, and Jordan, swimming in the creek with the tinies and making self-portraits with 8-year-old Evie 🙂 Also shoutout to the puppers Checkers and Oreo, who brought a lot of levity to some heavy conversations. An ALF Summer is always a time of tremendous growth and change for me, and this one was no exception – for brevity’s sake, I’ll leave it there for now.

Swimming in the creek!

There was a new moon&solar eclipse the after the program in Sacramento ended, and I desperately needed some alone time. So I took the train by myself to San Francisco – trains, as I mentioned, being a restorative, creative space for me – and then cut off all my hair. It was an emotional day, but ultimately a relief. Haircuts and train time: the medicine I need.

I’m an airbender!

From San Francisco I took another train out to meet a friend from NYC at a hostel at a place called Point Montara, which was on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean! As with Lake Tahoe, Abby and Nahla had been there the year previously, but Kirsten and I didn’t know what to expect – we got there and were totally floored by the beauty of the place. The cliffs, vivid with succulents and sandy, ocher soil, the grey-blue of the pacific, the susurration of waves, the gulls, the bands of clouds.

We ate Mexican food and watched the sunset together eventually Abby and Nahla joined us (having spend the day scrambling to help everyone else get home as Mercury Retrograde messed with their travel plans…). The next morning we woke up and climbed over the cliffs where the ocean broke on the shore, and I stood with my feet in the freezing water, and we marveled at it all.

 

 

Arrived at the hostel to this sunset <3
At the base of the cliffs (the ocean was freezing!)

We spent the rest of that day driving down the Pacific Coast Highway to LA – a muuuuuuuuch longer drive than any of us were anticipating. Since it runs literally along the coast (on a cliff, next to the roaring ocean and a bank of clouds…) it’s relatively slow going, and very windy. Luckily, Abby is a really great driver.

View from the car on the PCH – where you spend most of the drive ABOVE the clouds

Then we were in LA! What we were planning to do there… we didn’t know! But we made it! We dropped off the rental car and trusted each other to be honest about what we wanted to do on this vacation week – we wound up spending a few days at Venice beach, exploring the California Science Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Griffith Observatory, and the Getty Museum, (I like museums…) hanging out in a gay coffeeshop and a super cool bookstore, and spending a LOT of time in ubers. Turns out, people are not exaggerating about LA traffic…

This view from the Getty Museum was my absolute favorite… and the art was great too!

After a week, Abby and I dropped Nahla with her family and Kirsten at the airport and headed inland, where we rented another car and went on an unexpectedly surreal road trip. We drove up into the “sky island” of San Bernardino National Forest (which is classified as such because the flora and fauna that live at elevation are radically different from those in the surrounding lowlands) and hiked, tried to swim in a lake that had mostly evaporated, and then drove down the mountains and across a stunning desert as the sun was setting to go camping.

A wild Abby in her natural habitat…

We car camped in Sequoia National forest and woke up the next morning to swim in the Kern River, which is remarkable for the ferocity with which it flows at 5,000 feet. We were looking for a hot springs and never found them; the river was cool and clear and fast-moving but not too deep or strong – a joy to swim in. I didn’t take any pictures of the river, because I was too busy being present. I regret nothing.

We woke up here…

Going into camping, we were feeling very pleased with our route-planning; after our road trip, we were headed to Fresno, CA, where the crew at The Bungalow had invited us to stay (Manny and Miranda came to the training in Sacramento, and we’d met Jenny on several Monday evening ALF calls). But the Mercury retrograde/fire season combo struck again, and we discovered quickly that all of the roads ahead were closed because parts of Sequoia were on fire as well – all the parts between us and our intended destination. We wound up having to double back almost 2 hours of driving (and the beautiful deserts of the night before were somehow less exciting the second time around…).

We did eventually make it to Fresno, though, and (after stopping at an “underground garden” that was really weird and cool) were received by the generous company of Manny and Barbara, two of the Bungalow facilitators, and their family & dog Banjo. We spent two days with them and the whole Bungalow crew climbing trees, playing games, planting the garden, practicing headstands, drawing with kiddos and offering words of support in their first few days of school – they’ve got a really rad space and group of (creative, mess-making) humans to fill it, and I’m so excited to see how they grow!

It was an actual underground garden… and that tree is nearly 100 years old!

After Fresno we took a detour to Yosemite (still on fire, but Mariposa grove, where the giant sequoias are, had recently been reopened to the public), where we took the most expensive photos of our trip (entry to the park is $35/car… and good for 7 days. We only had an hour. Whoops!) and then drove out to Santa Cruz. The next day was the first day of VIRGO SEASON, which I opened by pulling tarot cards at the beach and swimming in the freezing ocean; after, Abby and I explored the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary center, ate vegan food, and headed off to San Francisco.

Worth it though…
Abby & a pal at the Marine Sanctuary

It seems appropriate that our California adventure began and ended in San Francisco; closing that loop was deeply satisfying. We stayed with a friend, Nicole, who we’d met at the AERO conference in June – she’s a play master, and was so generous with her books and art supplies and musical instruments. Over the course of the week we built a blanket fort in the living room, talked art education and play, and saw the SF Neofuturists together. Besides hanging with Nicole, I went climbing with some friends who had just moved to Oakland from NYC; a comforting reminder that I have all kinds of community all over the country.

I also took a solo day and went to a Magritte exhibit at the SFMOMA, which was SO COOL – I knew the famous apple-in-front-of-the-bowler-hat painting, but seeing it in context really shifted how I saw it. Magritte is a surrealist, but his surrealism is primarily concerned with perception – how do we know that we’re seeing what is when we’re limited by our perspective? How does the naming of things shift what we see? What if something is magnified? What if it is a paradox? The best moment came when I turned a corner and came into a room full of his Night Street/Day Sky paintings; I hadn’t realized that my favorite painting in the MOMA here is part of a series!

SFMOMA also had a bunch of Calder sculptures, as well as a large exhibit on Sol LeWitt, whose abstractions are concerned with the intersection of process, instruction, language, and construction. All in all, it was a great museum experience and I highly recommend it.

Calder @ SFMOMA
Back on the wall!

After that we flew to Mexico City, via Guadalajara. We only got to spend 6 hours in CDMX (which is the local abbreviation for Cuidad de Mexico) but it was incredible there – the cool, humid air a welcome change from the hot, dry California desert, and the lushness and vivid color of the city, a delight. We visited the Frieda Kahlo museum at Casa Azul, where I was particularly struck by the exhibit on her clothing.

Frieda contracted polio as a young child and then, when she was 18, she was in a bus accident that left her in pain for the rest of her life – her famous dresses were, in part, a cover for the many braces, supports, and corsets that allowed her to move about independently despite the severity and extent of her injuries. As someone who has been struggling with my own body, I felt a real connection with her. I’m grateful we spent the one day we had in her city there, and I’d love to go back someday soon and explore more.

Mexico City from the air

From Mexico City we took an (incredibly gorgeous, 5 hour long) bus to Xalapa, where we stayed with Rubén and Vivi! Xalapa is a city of about a million people – not orderly, like the grid here, but narrow and colorful and turning, full of surprises. Our ten days there were beyond delightful – Rubén, Vivi, Omar, y Moni were incredibly hospitable, the food was delicious, the city was bustling and the surrounding area was green and cool and alive with plants and rivers. We spent a day with the crew at Educambiando, which was so so fun (We played capture the flag! I learned to embroider! I taught Ruben and Vivi a counterbalancing pose!) and also so good-challenging for my translation skills – I speak baby spanish, only in the present tense. We drove out to Vivi’s house one day, which is like a beautiful dragon egg, and she made me tea from Yerba Buena from her windowsill garden and then we swam in a cold, fast, clear, shallow river while Ruben balanced stones. We went to a park and played on a slackline while Abby made friends with a beetle. We had a party and played a giant game of ninja and an absurd game of charades.

Walking to Vivi’s
Counterbalancing
Captura la bandera!

My favorite, most unexpected adventure in Xalapa was group singing! Leon, who is friends with the whole ALC crew in Xalapa, runs a music and arts program there, where every Wednesday night he leads a singing group. He’s a brilliant facilitator – he had a group of a dozen people of vastly divergent experience and musical knowledge singing together right away. He’d teach us a simple, repetitive, 3-part foundation – a blues baseline, or a chord – and then, once we got the hang of that, he’d point to a person in the group and have them sing, call-and-response, with him over that foundation. Every person sang each “song” – it was incredibly satisfying and brilliantly scaffolded so that even people who might otherwise be afraid to sing in front of a group felt comfortable, since we were all singing together. Afterwards, he kept saying “it’s so healthy for your soul” and that’s how it felt – like my soul was being watered. After, I sang with just Leon – he played the guitar and we worked our way through the jazz standards we both knew – and it was like I was discovering my voice for the first time.

The magical, musical Léon

It wasn’t all playing and exploring – there was work to do. Ruben, Vivi, Omar, Abby and Moni spent a lot of time working on/prepping for the Agile conference happening in San Luis in November (and seriously, props to them for the incredible amount of work they got done in a week. Abby is a programmer now!) while I painted, and read, and rested, and walked, and took myself out to breakfast, and admired the light, replenishing and renewing myself to be present for the school year. Xalapa was both an incredibly restful and productive place, and I’m so grateful to everyone I was with there – Ruben and Vivi in particular – for a beautiful final destination for my journey.

The rooftops of Xalapa

In the end, we took a bus back to Mexico City, and a plane to Chicago, where we spent the night with my rad cousin Elizabeth, who just started grad school there. The next morning we woke up and flew back, finally, home, and I cried in my plane seat when I finally saw the skyline…

I love you, New York

That’s where I was! Phew! Thanks for sticking with me through this very long post!

On a final note, I want to thank everyone who read my last blog post. It was a very cathartic piece to write, and and I’m grateful for the feedback I got, and for the sense of relief I feel at being out as a non-binary person on this blog. This piece felt very different to write, but they are two sides of the same coin; as I traveled, as I practiced sitting in uncertainty and being present and not knowing, sometimes, where I would sleep tomorrow or how the next leg of the journey would feel, I was also traversing my subterranean landscape.

This summer was a long journey, in a season of upheaval, astrologically speaking –  lots of planets in retrograde and three big eclipses. I changed a lot, and realized a lot about my self and my work and the ways I am growing – I filled 4 notebooks with drawings and watercolors and writing, writing, writing. I’m grateful that I left, and awed at the size of the world, and grateful to come home, to think about what home means for me.

As always, this has been an incomplete report. Thanks for witnessing.

<3
Mel

What Do You Want?

When I came out to my mom as a non-binary trans person, she asked me, “What do you want?” and I struggled to answer. I’d spent the previous 6 weeks up and down the state of California, living out of a backpack, running ALF summers and traveling openly with my new pronouns; I’d been avoiding this conversation with her but was relieved to finally be having it. It’s such a simple question, yet so powerful. It’s a cornerstone of self-directed education.

“What do you want?” my mom asked me, her voice small and far away. The knot in my stomach was familiar. My fear, my avoidance, was familiar.

“I want a coffee,” I said, deferring. “I want world peace.”

“Really?” she asked. “That’s what you want?”

***

I got mispronouned a lot this summer. I’m making a distinction between misgendering and mispronouning because I want to acknowledge that it was, for the vast majority, an accidental slip of language and not a malicious erasure of my gender identity. It wasn’t surprising – from the beginning, when I started coming out to people as non-binary and asking them to use “they/them” instead of “she/her” pronouns when they spoke about me, the most common response I got was “I’m totally gonna try, just bear with me because it’s really hard.”

And I did – the conflict-averse part of myself, the bit that was ashamed and afraid of taking up too much space assured them that it was okay, that it just meant a lot to me that they were willing to try.

I made that assurance because I felt shame about having desires, about taking up space. I felt shame that what I wanted was not what white, western, capitalist, heteronormative US society told me that I wanted – that I forfeited some of my privileges as a middle-class, college-educated, english-speaking, white, cisgender female US citizen to be a radical transgender unschooler. I felt shame. I feel shame. The system wants me to feel it – requires me to feel it in order to maintain its coercive power over us. I was prepared to have grace for it to be hard for other people because it was hard for me.

The thing that started happening, though, was that people didn’t try. That people continued to breeze past pronouns with no concern for their power or the harm it might cause me. I got misprounouned with disappointing frequency by people I had been radically vulnerable with. Sometimes I would catch them – “they, not she,” I would say – and they wouldn’t even hear their mistake but would continue blithely on talking about me. Sometimes I would catch them and they would turn into an avalanche of apology – “oh my gosh, I’m so, so, so, so, so sorry, it’s just so hard for me, you just have to bear with me I’ve never encountered this before and it’s all so new” and in my head the shame siren would blare: you’re wrong you’re bad your body is wrong you’re too hard you’re wrong.

Sometimes I would just be quiet.

***

When I finally sat down with my mother’s question, days after she’d asked it, I realized my essential answer was tripart:

  • I want to feel comfortable, powerful and valid, in my body and my self expression.
  • I want to feel loved and supported by the people I love and support.
  • I want people to use “they/them” pronouns with fluidity and consistency when they talk about me.

This is the third place I’ve written these wants, and the most public. I feel them growing in power each time I articulate them. I feel myself growing in power each time I articulate what I want.

***

The thing about coming out is that you’re never done doing it. I know this, intellectually. I’d had some experience with it previously, when I came out as gay and spent several years navigating the world of “well what does your boyfriend think of your haircut” and other heteronormative nonsense — an alarming number of barbers feel emboldened to ask you this question as they hold a razor to your skull.

I have grace for the people who mispronoun me, I do, I swear. But I need us to do better. And not just because I’m tired of having the same conversation (though I am) but because I’m tired of having the same conversation in ALC-land, where we’re supposed to be liberated, empathetic, understanding, imaginative humans raising liberated, empathetic, understanding, imaginative children. If self-directed learning is about asking the question “what do you want?” and meaning it, we have to do better when the real answer to that question requires us to do a hard thing.

Yes, it’s hard to hear pronouns. Our brains are amazing – they are so efficient that they effectively edit out the the parts of speech that we use most commonly. It’s why you probably didn’t realize that the word “the” is doubled in the previous sentence: your brain skipped it. Amazing.

It’s hard to do things that require us to make new neural pathways or to see things that were previously invisibilized to us. Privilege, intersections, toxic whiteness or heteronormativity – it is work to see the places that we’re unconsciously holding poisons, without shame or defensiveness or our egos rearing up to say “I’m not a bad person, I’m trying!”

As facilitators, it’s our job to make spaces safe for children. Trans children and gender-variant children, yes, and children living at all kind of intersections of privilege that are outside of our experience. Some of those children will ask us to do hard things – they will offer the miraculous radical vulnerability of children – and it is our responsibility to get it right. It is not enough to say I’m trying.

***

Only I am living this. Only I get to say what it feels like. Only I get to answer the question “what do you want?”

And,

the only way of living this is in relationship. I am in relationship with you. I want you to use they/them/theirs when you speak about me: They were traveling all summer. I talked to them the other day. Sounds like their trip was pretty wild.

***

California is on fire. Nearly everywhere I went in the state, I could smell smoke on the air. Some mornings, we would come outside and the car would be covered in ash. The locals were nonchalant about it, but it disturbed me deeply. I began to have nightmares about fire: rescuing children from it, needing to warn people who didn’t notice it was coming.

Our political system, our courts, our educational institutions, our state are on fire. They are actively destroying to everything in their path. It is not enough to notice a harmful thing and to walk away from it. It isn’t. Not if you’re not willing to shift your gaze to yourself and see the ways that the system has broken you. If not, you’re just carrying the spark of that flame with you, you’re going to set someone else ablaze. Probably someone with less privilege than you. Possibly a child you’re responsible to.

Children tend to be less attached to gender than adults are, and I think it’s important to note. If gender is constructed, like currency, on the mutual agreement of its value rather than something tangible, then it can be destabilized by our refusal to believe in it. As a person who occupies the spaces between genders – who was raised a girl and grew up to be something more complicated than “woman” and less certain than “man” – I dream of destabilizing the gender binary. I think raising free people means raising people who see the assigning of gender categories to be just that – a linguistic tic, a trope of our speech – rather than something essential. I like to think that my presence as an out and outspoken non-binary facilitator will be helpful to some children as they come into awareness of gender. I hope so.

What I really want is to break systems of oppression. What I really want is for children inherit a world that is better than this one. What I really want is for them to grow up comfortable in their most radical wantings, to believe their impossible dreams.

I want world peace, but first I have to get comfortable with wanting.

III. Reflection: Narrative Uncertainty, Consent, and Gratitudes

I’ve come now to the point in my narrative where I’m unsure. So much happened after the journey and the landing – a whole week and a half’s worth of relationship building and conversations about boundaries and realizing that I had reservoirs of knowledge and strength that were invisible until I called on them and found them there, deep and steady, within me. Every morning the kookaburras woke me up, under the gauzy mosquito net in the round womb of the yurt, and it was a new adventure. Every day I learned more about my self and others, our work and our play. Every night I went to bed exhausted but satisfied, feeling all the ways I’d stretched and grown in the sunshine.

I’m not unsure about my self, or my experiences. But I am unsure that I feel comfortable writing a day-by-day description of the rest of my trip here, on a public blog, because I am not a human alone; my experience was interpersonal and this story is not just mine to tell. I’m unsure who will read this; I’m unsure if I have everyone’s consent to share their stories with the wild, wild west of the internet. And, because I spent a large part of my time in Australia talking about how discomfort is an indication that you’ve encountered a boundary, I’m going to respect mine and not write about it. Surprise!

So instead of writing the last of this narrative, I’ll instead share with you a few realizations and gratitudes from my trip – not all new, but newly strengthened.

ALFing is deeply personal work.
Facilitation is showing up, as the being that you are, and holding space with your superpowers. Mine include deep listening, empathy, the ability to intuit whole structures from discrete parts, and a faculty with language that is playful, flexible and meaning-full.
I am grateful for the ways my superpowers support me in the (inter)personal work that I do.
I’m grateful for work that plays to my superpowers.
I’m unspeakably, inexpressibly grateful that I was able to fly around the world and be held and hold a community that started as strangers and became something much more dear to me than that.
I’m grateful to everyone who fed me, and made sure I had a place to sleep, and made wifi hotspots for me, and drove me to the places I wanted to go, and showed me the out-of-the way beautiful places I wouldn’t even know to ask about, and shared their hopes and fears and vulnerabilities and experiences with me.
I’m grateful to be reminded that it’s okay to ask for what I need.
I’m grateful for the reminder that I can get the things that I need, if only I ask for them.
I’m grateful for the ocean.
I’m grateful for trees.
I’m grateful for sunrises and sunsets.
I’m grateful for mountains.
I’m grateful for bats.
I’m grateful for communities that take indigenous practices seriously.
I’m grateful to my past selves for doing the deschooling work of (re)learning that my boundaries are valid, subjective, and absolute, that setting and holding boundaries is ongoing and vital, that boundaries are the thing that make freedom feel safe and possible.
I’m grateful to Tom and Bex particularly, and their children.
I’m grateful for my body.
I’m grateful for dancing.
I’m grateful for kookaburras.
And I’m grateful for the excuse to take all these photos…

here for the passion-fruit-from-the-yard-and-muddy-feet vibes ✨✅🌺

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They're braver tree climbers than I am…🌳🌳🌳

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Edge of the world // leo moon 🌊🌔

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donkeys r pals 🐴💚

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🌊☀️🌊have I mentioned that it's idyllic here? 🌊☀️🌊

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That’s all the travel missives for now! Looking forward to the summer and the opportunity to work with facilitators again (and wellspring of generative creativity I’m finding there…).

<3 Mel

II. Arrival: Trying to Make Art Out of Admiration

I arrived in Australia jet lagged with time-travel and revelation; I could hold boundaries with my anxious! Though my journey had already been momentous the work had not yet begun. Tom and I got in the car (the driver on the wrong side…) and drove out of Brisbane (and the time changed, yet again…) and proceeded to get thoroughly lost. I had surrendered to the journey, though, and so I trusted Tom would get us to the Garden and get me filled in on what to expect there. He did his best but, nonetheless, the culture shock was intense.

The final stretch of our journey was over a mountain, on a winding road, past the waving of verdant ferns and trunk upon trunk of strange, beautiful, tropical trees. I wanted to ask Tom what every thing was called – those violet flowers, that grey-trunked sapling – but their names slipped through my saturated brain. Instead, I held my questions and just marveled at the greenery, the lushness all around. Finally, we arrived.

“Take off your shoes!” Tom encouraged. “It’s a bog so they’ll just get muddy anyway.”

It was, in fact, a bog; each step I took across the sodden ground became a puddle, each footprint a small muddy lake. The grass was intensely verdant, thriving, and around us were rolling fields framed by green mountains; open blue sky and the long fingers of thriving trees reaching up, photosynthesizing. Gingerly, unused to my bare feet after a seemingly-endless New York winter, I followed him across the yard to investigate the yurt where I would be staying, meet the donkeys and the chickens. I felt like Dorothy; I certainly wasn’t in East Harlem anymore!

 

Tom picked up a passionfruit from the yard and handed it to me; I took it, dumbfounded, and he showed me how to break it open to get at its sweet, crunchy, pulpy interior. I had never held an actual passionfruit before. Until that moment I had suspected that they were merely a made-up flavor that beverage companies invented to sell a tropical flavoring. Sticky-mouthed, I was pleased to be wrong.

At the house, we assembled lunch from an array of farmer’s market goodness and I had my first slice of Tom’s heavenly gluten-free bread (the best I’ve ever tasted). Bex and the children arrived home after we’d eaten; at ages 6 and 3, they are younger than the humans I’m used to working with, but delightful nonetheless. I explained to Bex and Tom that I was trying to stay up until night to try and battle my jet lag; they suggested we go to the beach. Eager to submerge myself, I agreed and we all piled into the van and rode to the ocean.

Getting in the ocean always feels like a sacred experience; even when I am at the dirty beach at Coney Island (which is, in fact, next to a wastewater treatment plant…) I like to rush in alone, to have a minute to reconnect and say hello to the surging water. The beach at Wollumbum couldn’t be more different than Coney Island. It’s a cove – soft, pale sand and smooth tumbled stones, patrolled by bush turkeys – and the late afternoon light fell onto the pink and turquoise foam in bands of shining unreality. I was so jet-lagged, so culture-shocked, so tired in my body and boggled in my mind, I couldn’t even take a photo, couldn’t have recorded that beauty if I had tried. Even now, not even three weeks later, I’m grasping at the memory of it and I find I’ve got only the awe to hold onto. Even if I could go there now, stand on that beach at the same time of day, I could never recapture that moment.

There is lots of beauty here, in New York. The sunset behind the skyline, the view from the Q train as it crosses from one island to the other and you can see down the East River, past the arches of the Brooklyn Bridge and the towers clustered on the southern tip of Manhattan, to Governors’ island and the Statue of Liberty, distant, green, and dignified, presiding over the harbor. The parks – their rolling, manicured hills and plants and the people who lounge in them, a kaleidoscope of human faces. The art, everywhere; the treasures in museums and on street corners, graffitied onto buildings under the shadow of the elevated trains. It’s a different kind of beauty, and it’s all mashed up with the ugliness that we make as the inevitable by-product of living all close together, in a place that’s cold, cold, cold half of every year. It’s hard to see it when you’ve spent too long without getting out, when your eyes get cynical. I can see it now, because I’ve gone away and come back, but that first afternoon in Mullum I felt so saturated by the natural beauty I felt soft and pink and naive. I felt as though I’d been born.

That night, after dinner, the bats streamed overhead, hundreds of them, in the cool, dusky blue of twilight. Quiet, peaceful, their colony went out in search of food, harming no one, following the sight of the sound of their voices across the falling dark. And when the night came, I saw the Milky Way for the first time.

I. Flight: Holding Boundaries with My Self

I’m not great with uncertainty. I’m a Virgo. It’s not my fault. (Maybe it is, but we can psychoanalyze me later…) What’s relevant to this story is that I’m an earth-being who likes certitude and routine; that I am learning to tell the difference between when that’s powerful and when it’s hindering me; and that when I said “yes, I want to go to Australia,” and booked the tickets, I didn’t realize I was leaving on the first day of Mercury retrograde.

One of the defining characteristics of Mercury retrograde is that travel and technology get seriously wonky. Things that should be running smoothly don’t, despite our best efforts. A lot of the astrologers I follow frame it as the cosmos forcing you to slow down, teaching you the lessons you need to learn by going over the lessons you thought you’d learned already. The hardest part of my deschooling process has been getting comfortable living in uncertainty; I thought I had mastered dealing with my uncertainty, learned to live in it. And it’s true, in the past year-and-a-half I’ve gotten a lot better at it, and felt a lot better in the process. But when, on the morning of my flight, I woke up and saw it was really, truly snowing, the knot in my chest, the familiar tight, panicky feeling, told me otherwise.

We weren’t scheduled to take off until 11 PM, so I had the whole day to get really worked up in my anxious. I tried my best not to; I went to acupuncture, packed my bags, attempted to check in (and couldn’t, which didn’t help). I kept checking my flight – while the snow just kept piling on and flight after flight was cancelled out of JFK, mine remained “on time.” My mom, my acupuncturist, my friends all warned me it would probably be cancelled. But, improbably, when was time to head out, those little green letters hadn’t changed: “on time.”

I got to JFK and had to get in a massive line to check in – when I got to the front of the line, my generous buffer time had disappeared. Turns out the reason I couldn’t check in was a visa issue. I was flying to Australia via Abu Dhabi, where I had a short layover before my second flight, but I couldn’t get on either plane without my visa clearing Australian customs online. A frenetic man in red glasses behind the counter helped me (reapplying for the visa, waiting 15 minutes, realizing it hadn’t gone through, reapplying again, waiting again, panic mounting but trying to stay calm as the line dispersed through security and I watched my buffer time tick down and….) and finally, I was checked in. I had no bags to check, just my backpack and a small carry-on with my notebooks, so I dashed off to security and made it on board just in time.

So there I am, sitting on the most massive plane I’ve ever been on in my entire life, strapped into a window seat with 300 other people all anxious to get away from the raging first-day-of-New-York-spring storm, while the flight attendants fluttered about in pre-flight prep. The door is closed. I’m strapped in, my neighbors are strapped in. What’s happening, what’s happening? My mind is racing. Then, the captain gets on the intercom.

“Well,” he says, “we’re all loaded up and ready to go. We’re just going to wait for it to stop snowing a bit.”

My heart is thumping. I look out the window. It’s snowing so hard I can’t even see the plane next to us.

And that’s when I realized: I have no power over any of this. I can’t control the weather, or how long it’ll take to shift. I can’t decide when it’s safe for us to take off. I’m about to fly around the whole world, further than I’ve ever been, to go to a place I’ve never seen, to meet people I’ve never met, and do work to support them in some way that I don’t know yet. I said yes, and now I’m here. I don’t know if I’ll make my connection and I don’t know what will happen if I miss it. There’s only one choice I have in this moment: I can panic, or I can choose not to.

I chose not to panic.

We sat on the runway for 2 hours, which meant that by the time the plane took off, I already knew I would miss my connection. I held my panic in check with distraction, and sleep, and focus on my breathing. None of the flight attendants could tell me anything about what would happen when we landed, just attempt to reassure me that I would get to my destination.

When I landed in Abu Dhabi, got in a shuttle and drove across the strange, sleeping desert city and stay in a luxury hotel, courtesy of my airline. And on the way back to the airport the next morning, I got to see the sun rise over the desert – red in the sky like a bloody yolk, like a burnished ruby – and as we flew over the country I saw endless undulating desert, then rocky, fractal mountains, and then the blue sea. I had an empty seat next to me on the flight from Abu Dhabi to Sydney. I wrote and drew and reveled in the liminal space of the journey. I traveled through, traveled outside of time. I landed in Sydney, got on a final plane to Brisbane. And when I got off the plane in Brisbane, there was, in a sun hat and ALC shirt and no shoes, a human grinning at me.

“You must be Tom,” I said.

“I am! Welcome!” he said, and we hugged. I had arrived.

On Boundaries, Travel, and Sharing Facilitation Practice

I figured out who this blog is for! WHAT A TIME!

It’s interesting (and clear to me, reading back through it) how my lack of intention in audience has left my posts feeling disconnected and meandering – some are clearly written for the children I work with, some are appeals to parents, some are unspecified rants, some a messy combination of all of those. In the last edition of this blog, I wondered aloud who this writing is for, and asked the wide, wide internet to tell me. And I heard back! (Truly, I wasn’t expecting it.) Nicole and Grace, from Wildwood ALC in NC, told me that they’re not only reading this blog but that they want to read more!

It’s been nearly a month since that post. It’s been a long month, a strange one; Mercury went into retrograde and I traveled through time and space around the world to meet a wonderful, magical group of strangers who are doing this work in Mullimbimby, Australia (a place that couldn’t be more different than East Harlem, NYC!). We talked about boundaries and how the proper verb for facilitation is practice; I found that I’m much more confident and experienced than I knew and they found (I hope) some measure of stability that comes from talking to other people who do this (unusual) work, who can say “don’t worry, you’ll be talking about cleanup and keeping agreements ad infinitum because that’s what we do in ALC communities!” I felt a deep connection to those facilitators (<3 shoutout to Bex, Tom, Bia, Talia, Christopher, Shell, and Lynn!) and to my own identity as a facilitator. As I was leaving, and we were having the keeping-in-touch-conversation, someone asked if I have a blog. Bing bing bing!

Then, finally, last night, I got on the regularly scheduled Monday night call and chatted with Amber, of Rivers and Roads ALC in OK – it was just the two of us and we talked a bit about what’s present for us in our facilitation, our travels, our history, and it felt so good! We talked more about boundaries – a conversation that’s been echoing around more than just the facilitation parts of my life but that is vital to this practice, this work. Turns out, I love talking about boundaries (yes, I see my Virgo self…)! I want to do it more! And so do other facilitators!

In fact, there are lots of conversations I want to have with other facilitators – on boundary setting, on travel, on our collective experience – and I’m just realizing (slowly, perhaps, but in the right time) that this blog is a place to start them. Language is an imperfect tool. A blog is an imperfect medium. But I am a writer, and I write to manifest, and this is (currently) the only place where I make that process/practice visible to other humans. So if you’re reading (if you’ve been reading this whole time, or if this is the future and I’ve been prolific and you’ve scrolled back far enough to encounter this post) here is my intention: to hold a space to talk about what it feels like to practice facilitation, for other facilitators, from my own words and experience.

<3
Mel

Return from Philly, Escape from Jury Duty, Heartwood, Leveling Up Tools, and Ryan’s Beard…

I missed monday because I had jury duty which was a bummer but I did not get placed on a jury and I did do my civic duty so that was no big deal (besides being mildly bored for a day when I could have been at school). I also voted Tuesday morning! Very civic week all around.

We went to Philly and Abby’s parent’s house last weekend! It was an awesome trip. I wish I had more photos but I took most of mine on something called “real film” so they are not instantly available – I will post them when I get it developed. Here’s some photos I did take:

I did not include the week number in the title of this post because I’m learning that if a thing I’m doing feels arbitrary, I don’t have to keep doing it for continuity’s sake!!!!! (Knowing this rationally and acting on it are different things. I’ve been in the former state for a while, it’s the latter action that’s hard for my Virgo self…)

It’s good that we’re practicing getting out in the world because we skyped @mjuliacordero and some of the Heartwood crew this week and our teens were so excited/are talking about coordinating a trip to Atlanta now… (You can check out a photo on our instagram.)

I finished two big projects this week! One is the Gameshifting board I’ve been working on with my spawn – it’s taken a while to get all the materials but today we finally had everything we needed. @simoneboss @spino @zoe6 and Demian helped with design and execution and I think it turned out fantastic.

The other project I did this week was impulsive, but incredibly satisfying. Since I first started at ALC (last September) the game room closets have been an explosion of orphaned board game pieces, mixed-up playing cards, magnet tiles, lincoln logs, random dice, marbles, go stones, shredded boxes and more things to horrify a Virgo such as myself. I didn’t go on a field trip yesterday, which is my usual Thursday activity, and so I found myself with a whole day to tackle something new and that something was that chaos closet! I didn’t take a before shot, but here is during/after:

It’s not perfect (I wish I’d had time to label things, and there’s still a basket of all sorts of random cards in there that need to be sorted into their respective games…) but it’s MUCH better than it was and it was so satisfying to see how much more space there was in there when I was done.

Bonus photo: Ryan came back from the park today with flowers in his beard and it was rad…