Seasons: Feeling everything in 2020

I have been writing the words for this post in my mind now for weeks, maybe even months. Thoughts have been bubbling up, spilling over, fumbling over my tongue like a baby’s first words. Finally, this morning, the thoughts came in a wave — a crescendo. It’s finally time to share.

I’ve been struggling to put into words all of the thoughts, emotions, and experiences I’ve had since I last wrote a piece on here — May 26, 2020. At the time, I had just spent two months in quarantine from a first-of-its-kind global pandemic (that we’re still in, by the way). At the start of that same two months, I had been furloughed from a job I really despised but was finding it difficult to get back to myself. So much of my last 9 months had been a chronic state of anxiety, stress, and frustration that I stayed in bed most days, just trying to find some enjoyment in life again.

I worried about having enough money to pay bills and buy groceries, as my unemployment checks had only just started coming through, and there was still some uncertainty about a nationwide stimulus. (Stimulus, my ass). I worried about being called back into work, fearful that I would feel compelled to voluntarily re-enter a toxic environment. I thought about my impending grad school release, still a few months away, thinking it couldn’t come soon enough.

It took me two months just to eek out something on my blog, something that proclaimed my newfound confidence or ‘coming of self’ at the time. While 2020 had proven to be an incredible year of uncertainty thus far, I thought I could lean into this year being the 50th Earth Day anniversary and spend all my “free time” learning more about the environment. I was naively very wrong.

The day I published my last piece — May 26, 2020 — was just one day after the murder of George Floyd. At the time, I was spending less of my energy on social media and more time on taking walks, writing poetry, and reclaiming my peace. It wasn’t until after I published my “I’m not just a writer!” post that videos and news headlines and stories and chaos erupted all over my feed. Suddenly, it became clear to me that nothing else mattered in this moment, not even my own writing — something much more important was brewing on the horizon.

George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Elijah McClain. Rayshard Brooks.

These are just the people whose lives were untimely stolen and stories of whom I’m aware: Black Americans, this year alone, who were either killed or died from complications after encounters with police.

It was if an alarm bell had gone off in my head, a siren, that hasn’t been silenced since. As a white woman with considerable privilege in America, I had never closely examined my relationships with the police, mass incarceration, or the legacy of slavery in my own country prior to this year. In short, I realize now that I was afforded a luxury where I didn’t have to pay attention — I was guarded by an invisible shield packed up in privilege that convinced me I was safe, convinced me the law and the criminal justice system would work for me if I ever needed it. Because that system was designed to believe me, to work for me, should I ever “need” it.

I was incredibly naive and ignorant of the reality surrounding me. I thought I had too many climate policy analyses to read, that the climate was my issue, and that someone else would “solve” the racial injustices outside my purview. I was generally aware that racial injustices were still happening, for lack of a better phrase, but I was not aware the outrageous extent to which Black Americans and white Americans experienced such radically disparate systems resulting in pervasive inequity.

So I spent the next three months reading, listening, and watching. I finally read texts that I should have read a long time ago, like The New Jim Crow, and Between the World and Me. I cried through every chapter of Just Mercy, blindsided by how little I knew about the death penalty, unjust sentencing practices, and the lives of people I’ll never know but whose stories touched me deeply.

I listened to podcasts featuring Black leaders, authors, and organizers reflect on the Black Lives Matter resurgence this summer and what’s at stake — what’s always been at stake. I listened to the 1619 Project in its entirety, I watched documentaries, like 13th, and movies like The Hate U Give, and I participated in a silent march, commemorating the life of George Floyd, in my hometown — something I never thought would be possible.

I can’t express how much I learned in the last half of my quarantine, and I can’t express how ashamed I am that it took nearly 25 years of my life for me to absorb all of these historic and modern-day injustices. Here I had been looking up at the sky, worried about climate change or the state of the planet, or looking inward, only worried about my own troubles and personal afflictions, when people all around me have been marred by atrocity, have been fighting for their very survival now, and I was seemingly only worried about 30 years in the future.

I was walking around in another world Fixated on the sky, stepping on the ground beneath bloodied, buried with men and women and children who don’t look like me And yes Of course How ridiculous For most people to not particularly care about the particulate matter in the air Because most people are just trying to make rent Keep it together Stay alive Not die Of course How obvious

I spent the entire summer in deep reflection. I resisted the urge of the Internet age to post my own content, as much as made sense, because frankly (and I still think this) I’m not the person you need to hear from right now. What I have to say is not revolutionary, not that insightful, even. And that’s okay!! There are so many folks out here writing what’s on their hearts and minds and finally getting the amplification they deserve. More people are listening now than I think we have as a collective in a long time — I’m listening, too.

I’ve been leaning into this space of learning and listening from others who have much more important insights to share in this year of deep unrest than I ever have before. I know this might seem like silence to some people, but I think I personally needed a season of silence. I think I needed to stop and reroute. I needed to hear that there are voices that need amplified right now and there are voices that need to (in my own words) sit down and shut up. For writers and bloggers and storytellers, especially, we think we have the most insightful things to say all the time. I’ve learned this year, above all else, that that’s just simply not true.

So I rode the wave of social justice and climate justice, following the lead of a new organization I now support monthly called Intersectional Environmentalist, into the start of my first semester of grad school. I was all fired up, and I was ready to take on systems of oppression in the environmental movement, especially.

But when I got into class, for the first time in two-and-a-half years, I nearly fell flat on my face. Not only did I get a rude awakening that first week when I had to write an academic reflection — say WHAAAAAT about APA style, again??? — but hardly any of the material I was told to learn this semester fired me up at all. Who cares about the evolution of planning theory when the whole world outside is either on fire, due to climate change and civil unrest, or on lockdown due to a deadly, rapidly spreading respiratory disease that we can’t seem to get a handle on STILL? Oh, and a presidential election that matters massively for the next critical years of social policy and the livability of this planet? Or the fact that millions of people have had no resounding “stimulus” to survive a pandemic-laden economy? How does that not seem to matter more?

We spent the entire semester being taught material that, for five of my six classes (god bless you Kareem), had not changed since the start of the pandemic nor reflected pressing social issues that would actually aid us as planning practitioners in the world today. It felt like I had been catapulted back in time, back when we could mostly feign innocence about certain realities. But really I had been punted back into the highly elitist, highly white-hegemonic tower of academia that I had evaded for nearly three years.

I struggled from September thru October to make sense of this juxtaposition. In the first part of the year, I had felt so lost and adrift, aimlessly wandering and heartbreakingly depressed at the state of the world and my own position in it. In the middle part of the year, I felt humbled and empowered from so many people I had just come to know, courageous in my newfound activism and committed to living out these truths in my work and life forever. Now, in this third part of the year, I have felt incredibly disappointed and deflated, frustrated by the intransigence of the institution I am now a part of and isolated from at-home classes and now a remote internship. So much had seemed so clear, after a purposeless last two years working retail and administratively assisting, waiting for the day when things would start to make sense again. My purpose had seemed to crystalize in July and August — so why was everything around me pressuring me to lose that focus again?

While I have mixed feelings about the writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, I have carried with me one of his quotes that I first read, way back when, in a high-school honors English class: “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”

For those of us who feel like we deviate from the dominant paradigm, our modern world is so astute at trying to blow us off-course, bring us back in the mainstream, make us forget what we’re fighting for. To remain true to yourself and your beliefs is so freaking hard to do, when we still live in a world dominated by patriarchal leaders and pervasive whiteness/white supremacy, that that alone is an accomplishment.

And now that the semester is over, and I don’t have to think about tax-delinquent parcel redevelopment any time soon…. I am retreating into my world of winter solitude. I am going to embrace some personal time and space to continue stoking the embers of a fire re-lit.

I wrote this in a reflection piece for class this semester, but I want it written here so I don’t lose sight again: “We live in profoundly individualistic society whose primary focus seems to be cutting others down to build our own selves up. ‘Continuous incarceration is a feature of settler colonial rule,’ write Dorries and Harjo (2020, p. 212). We will forever live on and occupy stolen land that was fundamentally constructed on the backs of Black labor. ”

I have been leaning into another resurgence this fall — Indigenous sovereignty — and I am intent on reading up, studying up, in these next four weeks of ‘freedom.’ I’ve got books like All We Can Save and The River Is In Us on tap. I’ve got films like Gather and The Sacred and the Snake ready to play. And I’ve got a whole lifetime ahead to learn, listen, and lean into not only ally-ship but accomplice-ship of Black liberation and Indigenous sovereignty.

Why? Because I believe it is the right thing to do.

This is my true-compass north. Reading and listening and reconnecting with others who feel the same this year has been challenging, seemingly isolating, but so rewarding. I hope you continue to follow what truth calls you home. For me, this is mine.

-bnb

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