Unsettling Librarian

Bonedeep, or I’ll Get to the Info Professional Stuff after I Process This Mess

Before I turned thirty, I’d already been divorced twice. The first one was opposite-sex and included the joys of wading through family court. The second one was same-sex back before that was legal, so I got to skip filing suit and appearing in court. Though they differed in that practical aspect, they bore definite similarities to each other in emotional aspects. I felt bereft, not just of whatever companionship I’d thought I’d found in the relationships that were ending, but of any sense that I was competent to assess the trustworthiness of my fellow humans.

After both divorces, I nonetheless trusted in those fellow humans I understood as chosen sisters. Those two romantic relationships each lasted roughly four years, but those two platonic relationships endured for decades. Now, in a time enriched by the work of the Black Lives Matter movement, in the wake of the death of my eldest chosen sister, as my daughter embarks on her twelfth year, I’m getting divorced again.

Not, this time, from my (primary) romantic partner, even though we’re nostril-deep in what seems like a supermajority of Biggest Marital Stressors (financial strain, chronic health issues, financial strain, moving house, financial strain, multiple jobs, financial strain, et fuckin’ cetera).  Instead, this time, from those very humans I’d once trusted so much. Once again, I’m feeling bereft, not just of whatever companionship I’d thought I’d found in the relationships ending, but of any sense that I’m competent to assess the trustworthiness of my fellow humans.

Now, as those times before, I am nonetheless trusting some of the humans in my life to listen, to understand, to comfort in this time of hurt, of grief, of loss. Now, as those times before, I find myself reflecting on the emotional histories of the relationships ending. When my first marriage ended, those reflections left me with nothing I wanted to keep. Every part felt stained with the coercion that poisoned the whole. When my second marriage ended, those reflections left me with some memories that still glowed, but like roses on a bush gone mostly to thorns.

As I move through the process of this more complex untangling of relationships, I’m feeling as if there’s a shimmer over it all that once I would’ve mistaken for moonlight, but now see as radioactivity. When I try to move closer, try to rediscover the Moon’s presence in these memories, the faces of my daughter and granddaughter, my partner and (step)son coalesce between that shimmer and my heart, and the light fractures. Lunar, radioactive, or both, the light is now broken across shards of glass and bone that litter this emotional landscape.

That brokenness is made of all the work-not-done on behalf of those coalescing faces, not-done on my behalf. To my way of thinking, of feeling, love means solidarity, means ally, means work. If I love you, I love you in your entirety and cannot look away from those aspects of you that I find challenging or inconvenient or discommoding while still using that verb to describe how I feel toward you (which might explain, at least in part, the years I’ve put in trying to cope with such aspects in these relationships). 

In those terms, if you love me, you love challenging the system of raced oppression that informs every aspect of life in this country. You love that challenge because you know that the “nuclear” family I’ve made is endangered every moment of every day by that system of raced oppression. You love that challenge because you don’t want my heart ever to be broken like the hearts of so many mothers of Black children and lovers of Black adults have been broken for longer than this country has existed.

Might’ve been a good if you’d’ve loved that challenge on my behalf pre-this-partner and pre-parenthood, but that work-not-done preexists my current famlilial realities. Throughout my life, I’ve been making my own way through a generationally mixed blood experience with little other than indirect dismissal or direct denial of that experience from these same once-trusted folks. The pain of that dismissal and denial of my experience was nothing next to the pain that came as I watched that work and more go undone from the perspective of a parent.

From before my daughter was even conceived, I found myself fielding deeply painful work-not-done from these humans I’d so long and again trusted overmuch: “It’s just a fling, right?”; “You don’t want to have a baby with him. It won’t look like you.”

From her infancy, I wept. My efforts to make this family of affinity I’d put so much of myself into a safe place for my whole child were generally met with remarkably familiar indirect dismissals and direct denials at worst and tepidly-mouthed platitudes at best. I wept at the idea that she’d likely encounter Otherization at the hands of folks I was raising her to understand as family more times than I’d care to count over the years.

Too many years. Why so many? Now that I’m come at last to this divorce, I find myself looping through self-flagellation and castigation because it took me so damn long to get here, to take this step with a will. How could I play at family with folks whose behavior I’d already firmly rejected in my actual blood kin? How could I give latitude to the platitudes of whiteness-ensnared folks who could not and cannot be bothered? How could I trust my only daughter’s childhood visits with what I framed as her maternal family to these folks? Folks whose notions of anti-racist allyship left me walking in minefields of entitlement and microaggressions, getting washed in WWT and variations thereon when I had the audacity to point out shrapnel wounds, or worse yet, tried to keep those wounds from being topics of conversations in spaces where my levels of vulnerability – created and maintained by their insistent ignorance – were enormously triggering and unsafe for me?

No, you don’t have a proprietary interest in my suffering, and no, you are not allowed to poke me with sticks to see how I twitch in the name of allyship.

Yes, my raced identity is valid.

Yes, ‘colorblind’ rhetoric is racist (& ableist).

Yes, this comic is representing a reality just described to me by you from the perspective of an enabling authority, and no, that’s not okay, and no, it’s not okay that we’re re-enacting a variation on that scenario while discussing it.

No, for the eleventy-millioneth time, I don’t want to watch the Wire with you. In case me getting up and leaving the room and the house and the yard didn’t make that clear enough the last time you asked me again.

No, it’s not okay to describe houseless people of color as frightening, predatory animals.

No, it’s not okay to opt out of standing against racism and other systems of oppression because you’re afraid what folks will think – maybe that you’re a “crazy lady” like that one got herself killed? You recall her? Shot by some of those genuine white racists who are not like you at all given they use their tongues to speak their minds, among other things.

No, speaking of those genuine-types, it’s not okay to attend militia meetings in the state giving Mississippi a run for its money on the Most Racist Shithole front and then bring it up in conversation as if it weren’t loaded as fuck

No, it is not okay to unilaterally rename a woman or child of color because you cannot be bothered to learn, remember, or properly pronounce their given name. 

No, it’s not okay to dismiss the self-determination of a whole people in order to insist on using the racist epithet that was hurled at them while they were being murdered in the Third Reich’s death camps and is still hurled at them in the streets of Europe today because said racist epithet “means something else” to you. Not a valid argument for that football team. Not a valid argument for Norman Mailer or his heirs. Not a valid argument for you.

Et fucking cetera. What the hell was I thinking all these years?

I don’t have any good answers to these questions, no matter how many times I follow them around inside my head.

My co-parent and I frequently discuss the importance of both our own ongoing unlearning of the oppressive bullshittery we’re all inculcated with in the U.S. and deprogramming, as we call the constant work parents in this country have to do if they want their children to grow up with an understanding of themselves and the world that is something stronger, truer, and more nourishing than the shit-cicle of the kyriarchal status quo. At some point, I realized that these were not priorities in the same ways for other folks/parents in my chosen family, at least not insofar as race was concerned, or gender, or gender roles, or sexuality, or disability, or even, remarkably enough, class. Maybe somewhat in terms of an utterly essentialist notion of sex. That was about as far as that all went, and from where I was standing, that wasn’t very far at all when declarations like “Boys will be boys.” “He’s allboy.” were still being made generation after generation.

Yeah, their lives were full with surviving, with doing so while being ill and poor and overworked and underpaid and mired in the sometimes-delicious muck of living. Mine, too, though.

No, I’m never doing as much as I think I ought as a parent, as a deprogrammer, as someone whose self-education and self-reeducation is always ongoing, and therefore, always incomplete and too-often, inadequate. Yes, I have fucked up. Yes, I will fuck up again and again throughout my life. Yes, it sucks when I inflict my unexamined biases on other people. Yes, I’m always working on interacting with the world in a more conscientious manner, but no, that’ll never mean I get shit right all the damn time.

Perhaps that was what held my tongue for so long. I know myself, my own limits, and I want them to be understood with compassion, to be respected instead of scorned. 

But that was never a good reason because everyone is a work in progress. My inadequacies are no excuse for coddling me or anyone else. Compassion for anyone’s stumbles on the hard and endless road that is solidarity cannot, by definition, outweigh the realities of injustice. Beyond that, the realities of life and death in the schools, streets, offices, houses, prisons, and playgrounds of this country cannot wait for everyone to perfect themselves before they’re directly engaged.

At some point, something clicked over in me – in my heart, or my mind, or perhaps my gut. In the midst of being present for these chosen families in one of life’s most difficult passages while protesters in Ferguson resisted police murder and martial law, I viscerally understood that far beyond doing this work, or not doing this work for me, for my daughter and her brother, for my partner and granddaughter, they weren’t doing it for tens of millions of their compatriots, of their fellow humans. Hadn’t been and wouldn’t be. Instead, they’re enabling the systems of order that endanger us all and raising their children to do the same, whether by persistent passive inaction or active modeling of acceptance of the status quo.

In yet-another pain-wracked processing session with my partner in the wake of that obvious epiphany – a processing session that had to wait for many days and hundreds upon hundreds of miles because I didn’t trust myself to begin it until I was safely home – I determined to turn my face to the sea when that most difficult passage was done.

Months passed, and yet I didn’t. Perhaps because the passage wasn’t done. But when, really, is death done? We carry the deaths of those we’ve loved with us until our own comes, and then we are carried in our turn. Death is the endless passage down which life trundles, now determined or indifferent or melancholy, but always in there.

In those months that passed, moments came and went as they had done for decades previous. Moments when people said things to me I’d invited in-laws to leave my house over, things I’d walked away from blood kin over, things I’d most certainly challenged other friends and coworkers and workplace policies and strangers in public spaces around. Moments when once-trusted people gave a nod to the wrongness of those things while simultaneously dismissing them and asking me to grant absolution for that dismissal as had happened so many times before: “You understand why I’m not saying anything, right?”

Yes, of course, I understood, but the thing they wanted me to understand was not the thing that I understood. When I said, “yes, of course,” and mouthed the absolution charms being asked of me, something in me gave way. When it happened twice in a matter of weeks, something began to reorganize itself within me, and eventually, that new structure changed the shape of the words coming from my lips, from my fingers, from my heart.

So done. That’s what I want to be with this. I want to be done because it’s the sort of tearing pain that generally accompanies divorce, the bereftness often inherent in the parting of paths, whether in a wood on a winter’s eve or in the heat of a global-warming summer in Oakland.

I’m not yet, though. Not yet done with this. It’s a process, and having been through it a couple of times before, I know that. That knowledge helps. I remember how raw both of those divorces left me. The seismic shifts they resulted from and created in my life were relatively minor next to the changes in internal geography being wrought in this one. Yet, that is negligible next to what chasms might be opened by the work not being done, not to mention those already enabled, opened, widened, and maintained by that same passivity.

So, yes, again: Enough.


Nothing More*, or the Longest of Cons

*”The price the white American paid for his ticket was to become white –: and, in the main, nothing more than that, or, as he was to insist, nothing less. This incredibly limited not to say dimwitted ambition has choked many a human being to death here: and this, I contend, is because the white American has never accepted the real reasons for this journey. I know very well that my ancestors had no desire to come to this place: but neither did the ancestors of the people who became white and who require of my captivity a song. They require of me a song less to celebrate my captivity than to justify their own.”

~ James Baldwin, from the introduction to The Price of the Ticket

In my twenties, I understood myself to have something of a zero tolerance policy for oppression-defending or -extending bullshittery. On more than one occasion, I walked away from relationships, romantic and otherwise, when someone showed me how little work they were willing to do to challenge systems of oppression.

Sometimes that was none. No work on themselves. No work on our collective culture as represented in work and family and leisure spaces. No work at all. Sometimes there was some. A bit of acknowledgment on the part of a man that sexism was a bad thing that other men did. A moment of clarity on the part of a middle class person about the realities of poverty in America. A temporary recognition of the consequences of heterosexism and homophobia on the part of a straight-identified person. Et cetera. As a rule, when it wasn’t enough, I walked.

In retrospect, though, I permitted enormously generous interpretations of “enough” for myself and the folks I felt closest with, trusted too completely. In my thirties, I began to recognize the liberality of my interpretations, began to consider walking there, too. Instead, I decided to attempt to engage more deeply. I was learning so much, and in my usual enthusiasm, expected others would be just as eager to acquire knowledge new and challenging to them.

Among the things I was integrating into my understanding were the importance of ‘each one, teach one’ and the inescapable reality of my own responsibilities for continuing my own learning while staying present, engaging differences of perspective in persistent and ongoing ways. Except that I suck at that – well, the parts after “learning” anyway.

In my forties, I’m learning that why I suck at that is because I’m on the autism spectrum, and I lean hard on the all-or-nothing approach to life. I may’ve thought W. was a remorseless prick when he said, “If you’re not with us, then you’re against us,” but that’s essentially how I feel about social justice issues and people – in my life and in general – who cannot be bothered to educate themselves and others, grapple with themselves and others around these literally life or death issues.

I keep trying to be otherwise; I keep trying not to feel as if I’ve been stabbed in the chest each time someone I’ve loved for decades stands idly by while someone they’ve loved for decades “stands up” for racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, et fucking al. That’s especially hard when I’m the one they’re “standing up” against. I keep trying because inflexibility is a bad thing, I’ve been told, and hell, I even believe it in a variety of contexts like trying new food or traveling to new places or respectfully educating oneself about cultures other than one’s own.

In some contexts, though, I’m thinking maybe not.

I’m thinking of that Indigo Girls song my daughter’s been singing since at least kindergarten, if not preschool: “The center holds, or so they say. Never held to well for me. [. . .] The center held the bonded slave for the sake of industry. The center held the bloody hand of the execution man.” (h/t to other folks not finding ‘neutrality’ acceptable)

I’m thinking of a familiar passage penned by Frederick Douglass the better part of two centuries ago:  “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

I’m thinking about those quotes because I’m realizing that these people in my life whom I’ve loved for decades are, like millions of their fellow Whiteness-ensnared Americans, completely unwilling to return their ticket. They are, though, completely willing to do everything in their power to avoid seeing what the real costs of that choice are for those of us who never got a ticket, or who’ve returned ours at the window and reaped the rewards of a partial refund more precious than feathers or gold. (h/t Alice Walker and Rob Verchick)

Just as American imperialist capitalism externalizes the costs of our oligarchs’ high living and the cheaper seats purchased for our bourgeoisie and even those train-jumping poor folks back in the empty boxcars, so, too, does Whiteness externalize the costs of the grotesqueries of White Privilege. I’m not okay with that.

I mean, I’m happy to be part of cost redistribution when it comes to the complex resource-sharing dance that folks on the shit-side of capitalism have been doing for longer than there’s been capitalism, but that’s because it’s collaborative.

Whiteness expecting non-Whiteness to eat all the shite that must be externalized in order for Whiteness to pretend to its tenuous existence, and smile while we’re at it? Not so much.

Here’s the thing, though. The way Whiteness is constructed, I can’t refuse to pay that ticket without paying another. I can walk, yes, but I’ll be walking away from something I’ve invested myself in to an extent that can be nothing other than alarming in this light. I suppose that’s how this looks from their perspectives, too, right? Except the alarming over-investment is in Whiteness.

Scary shit to point out that Whiteness is empty of positive meaning when one has permitted oneself and one’s children to be defined as “nothing more than that, or [. . .] nothing less.” Scary shit to say, “No, if you support that racist shite, then don’t come in my house,” or “That’s not acceptable to me because it dehumanizes people I love, or hell, any people at all, and I’m going to tell you about it every gotdamn time I have even a modicum of energy for so doing because see above re: the humanity of people I love.” Scary shit, indeed.

Kinda like contemplating giving up your oldest friend and only living (play)sister and her kids (and grandkids) because they repeatedly prioritize their comfort over solidarity. Kinda like contemplating giving up the surviving children (and grandchildren) of your only other (play)sister because they do the same. Kinda like realizing that all the talk about family of affinity is flat bullshit when they’ll overtly excuse their own comparative indifference to anti-black racism by pointing out that your intensity around those issues is rooted in you having black family members – which implies that they don’t despite letting your kid call them Auntie for over a decade.** Kinda like realizing still and again that all the talk about family of affinity is flat bullshit when they’ll coddle their racist and racist-defending/dismissing blood, directly or indirectly, at the expense of your kids, your grandkid, your beloved, yourself. Kinda like. Scary shit.

But then, another human being – black, American, unarmed, and generally young – is murdered by another police officer either too cowardly or too petty-power-drunk to even consider doing otherwise, and I look at my beloved, my children, my grandchild, and I think, how can I do otherwise? How can I continue to play at compromising on the inherent value of their existences?

Especially when I should know better than to expect better from those who feel entitled to require those compromises be made to protect them from their own culpability.

When my great grandmother’s parents were finding a way to get her and her brother safely away from the Cossacks, I don’t think they were expecting help from the woman they’d known their whole lives who cleaned Jewish blood from her husband’s boots with nary a cross word.

When my great Uncle Al’s family was being murdered in Auschwitz, I imagine he was long past expecting the neighbors who’d watched them hustled into cattle cars to be of any meaningful aid.

When my great grandmother was being “saved” from her parents’ Onondaga-ness via closed adoption into a White family, she was too small to even conceive of how her descendants were being robbed of heritage, culture, and connection, but the folks doing the robbing were crystal on the concept. It was, in fact, their naked and explicitly expressed intention. Where were her allies among those complicit in that crime against generations?

And so, too, for those ancestors who, by force of circumstance and choice, traded away Blackfoot and Welsh and Cherokee and Irish for (conditional) assimilation into Whiteness – where were their allies? Where were those willing to put aside their comfort and stand against genocide, erasure, exploitation, and grave injustice?

Wherever they were, there weren’t enough of them, and there still aren’t today. Perhaps this is me putting aside my comfort in these presences in my life, in these relationships that seem to gnaw at my guts most days more than to nourish me – much like Whiteness.

In truth, these relationships are least on the list of what racism has and could cost me. Perhaps, just maybe, my willingness to pay this contextually small price might help awaken others to the inescapable reality of those larger costs, both immediate and potential. Perhaps, perhaps not. Either way, I’ll pay this ticket because that’s part of what it means to have returned the other one.

In no small part, I returned it because I was only issued a phantom ticket in the first damn place, and it was always in danger of being voided by the conductor any damn way.

In very large part, I returned it because I know who I am. My mischling, second degree ass would not accept someone’s assertion that I should understand why they tolerate their brother’s or sister’s defense of the flag of the Third Reich, nevermind their expectation that I should do the same. That same mixed blood ass of mine will no longer accept anyone’s assertion that I should understand why they tolerate their brother’s or sister’s defense of the flag many of today’s Neonazis use in place of the Reich’s, and fuck their expectation that I should do the same. And that’s just the tip of the no-more-coddling-collaborators iceberg.

If you’re not with me, then you’re against me? I don’t know, but I do know that I’m a gimpy, middle-aged, queer mixed blood with precious little energy to spare. I’m tired of burning up so much of it on the heartwounds made of the resounding silences of those I thought would speak for me and mine, made of the bitter chill that let’s me know those I thought had my back don’t.

Maybe this is self-indulgent, inflexible “oversensitivity”. Maybe it’s just me saying, “Enough.


**And which also operates on the baseless assumption that having a black family member magically transforms people into well informed, consistently engaged opponents of anti-black racism without any arduous, ongoing work on their part. {Corollary of the Black Friend Charm & IncantationTM, perhaps?} That baseless assumption also conveniently ignores the work around anti-racism that should, but too often doesn’t go into the raising of white-identified children by white-identified adults.

In my own experience, growing up with African Diasporic family members – a Jamaican American great uncle and his three children, a Puerto Rican American aunt and her three children, and briefly, an African American great uncle – didn’t render me immune to the anti-Black racism soaked into the fabric of U.S. culture and my family. Parenting African Diasporic children certainly didn’t magically free my great aunt or my uncle from their anti-Black enculturation as (wannabewhite) Americans nor turn either of them into actively anti-racist individuals. When I made a conscious decision to challenge the toxicity of that enculturation when I was in my early 20s, I began to recognize and resist anti-Blackness more consistently and effectively, but that work is an ongoing, lifelong undertaking.

Key words: conscious decision; work; ongoing, lifelong undertaking.

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