Saturday, August 22, 2015

Thoughts from NOLA: Confronting Privileges, Biases, and Bullshit

Making a move like the one I’m trying to prepare to make is scary. Period. Moving to Sweden was terrifying. Moving across the country is terrifying. And, much as I had predicted, New Orleans will be a greater culture shock than Sweden was.

This is because it’s in the South in the United States of America, which comes with its own culture that is decidedly different than Pacific Northwest culture and was shaped by a different history. The food is different, the buildings are different, the people are different. And it is insanely more diverse than Oregon, that’s for damn sure. But that started to be true in Arizona and through New Mexico, where I was more likely to meet people of African, Latinx, and Native heritage than white folks. (Side note: I fucking love Taos, NM.)

I am so good with that. That is one of the big reasons I want to come to New Orleans. I may half-jokingly shout “Voodoo and Mardi Gras!” when people express befuddlement at this desire, but really one of the biggest driving factors is that I know I have lived a very narrow experience. I know this, and I don’t believe that I can be the best possible version of me if I allow myself to continue living such a narrow existence.

Here, have some giant voodoo dolls.
I think I actually expressed the primary element of this very narrow experience pretty well on facebook yesterday: “I never realized how mired in gentrification I've been my whole life until seeing the very clear racial divides between different areas in this city,” I wrote after having viewed an apartment in an African American neighborhood, which was decidedly poorer than the downtown area I later found myself having some iced tea in—which was defined by towering glassy buildings and fancy, expensive apartments and was populated largely by Caucasian people. “I've been so mired in it my whole life I couldn't see it until just now. This is one of the reasons I want to live in Nola: to check my privileges and force myself to grow into new parameters of existence. I know I'll not ever know what it feels like to live without white privilege but at the very least I can broaden my understanding and experience of this world.”
This is one of my primary goals. It became more defined when I pulled up at that apartment complex and found myself so sharply aware of the color of my skin in a way which living in Oregon and Sweden never forced me to be aware. I felt out of place. I felt like a trespasser. And what I feel reflects most poorly on me: I felt afraid.

I sat there in the car for a second and thought about that. “Why do I feel afraid?” I thought. “Do I actually feel afraid right now because I don’t see anyone else who has skin like mine? Why the actual fuck do I feel that way?” I expect better from myself. Up until that moment I had believed that I was so above that kind of societally propagated bullshit.

Suddenly I realized I was wrong: despite being able to point out the ways in which the media covertly pushes this idea that black communities are inherently crime ridden and therefore dangerous, I am not and never have been immune to it. Despite being able to dissect the insidious and far subtler ways that racism continues to run through our society, those same mechanisms have wormed their way under my skin.

“Well fuck that,” I said, and I got out of my car and went to the office where I was greeted by a property manager who was incredibly friendly, upbeat, and genuinely just excited about life. No one else I crossed paths with on the property really paid me any attention at all, let alone behaving even remotely threatening.
 Not that this is relevant, but it sure is pretty!

Later that same day a man approached me on the sidewalk near the motel. He was a young African American man in a baggy white tee and baggy pants. I recognized that same withdrawing in myself—that same fear in me which I find so repulsive. I felt it physically pushing me, and I got mad at it, and I made myself turn to face this man who couldn’t be much older than myself, and I made myself stand up straight and take a few steps to meet him and say, “I’m sorry, what’d you say?” He explained to me—in quite the long and winding narrative—that he didn’t have any money for cigarettes, that he really wanted some cigarettes, but that he didn’t want to beg money from me. When I offered him money he refused—he didn’t want my charity. When I told him I’d been about to get on the bus he offered to sell me his bus pass. I took him up on the offer.

The interaction included a communication moment which was the kind of growth experience I want to have. He asked me a question, and I didn’t understand. We had a moment of confusion, and then we acknowledged that it was our backgrounds preventing us from communicating. “We black and white can’t talk to each other,” he said. “We gotta be so careful what we say.” And that’s absolutely true—because of our backgrounds we learned different kinds of English. But we had a laugh about it, wished each other luck, and went on our ways.

"This is not a promotion of ignorance. This is a linguistic celebration."

Things were going well. I was at the very least managing to be aware of my shit and check it. I was managing to unravel the reasons why I felt uncomfortable in certain paint-chipping, crumbling neighborhoods despite the fact that there were little girls wearing pink helmets and chasing each other on tricycles on the cracked pavement: these neighborhoods—these traditionally black neighborhoods—were visibly poor because their inhabitants didn’t have the money to invest in cosmetic fixes; the city hadn’t bothered to fix the streets in the low property tax neighborhoods. This did not jive with my privileged upbringing as a middle class woman whose parents were able to achieve the middle class status at least in part because the color of their skin made it easier for employers to see their merits as employees; made it easier for teachers to see them as potential successes rather than slackers or thugs. I was out of my element, and once I came to terms with why I felt uncomfortable, once I was able to name the cause for my discomfort, I was able to master it, at least for the moment, and proceed like a reasonable fucking human.

Nonetheless, those initial seeds of fear remained. They cannot simply be uprooted and discarded. Undoing all of those careful trains of thought laid down by a fundamentally segregated society is not so easy as winning three or four tiny battles with discomfort. That shit will very likely take a lifetime, at least. But these same trains of thought exist in many, many other minds that do not recognize them for what they are, and when a few of these other minds pressed their fear on me (out of a place of love and concern) it was like fanning a campfire in the forest with gusts of pure oxygen.

First I was angry. Then I was just scared. I was engulfed by fear and started weaving a new narrative: a narrative of a Tahni who was too afraid to go outside of the boundaries of her very narrow existence, who was incapable of growing past the limits of her gentrified existence. Then I hated myself.
But hey, at least this is pretty, too!
I sat there sobbing for a while, with a box of tissues at my side and my phone in my lap, going back and forth with two good friends who did their best to convince me that I wasn’t a bad person. And it took a lot of convincing, because realizing that the structure and function of our segregated society (if not in name, still in principle and action—otherwise there would be no “black” neighborhoods, you understand. There would only be neighborhoods) had gotten so deep inside of me that it might as well be in the fiber of me very bones made me feel like the worst of people. Realizing that I was under the sway of racial biases and genuinely not knowing if I would ever be able to overcome them made me feel like a monster. It made me feel like the person I had always believed myself to be was nothing more than a pipedream.

My friends pointed out that our media does an awful lot to paint black communities as crime riddled and dangerous, which of course affects people, and that I shouldn’t expect myself to be immune. They told me that, maybe, just maybe, I am being far too hard on myself and hey—isn’t recognizing all of this the first step to being the better person I want to be? Isn’t being willing to confront it head on the second step to being that better person?

Yes, probably.

Today I feel far better about myself and my ability to live in New Orleans than I did last night. Nonetheless, I am still frustrated with myself, and I am angry at our society. I am angry that, though segregation and the Jim Crowe era officially ended, its legacy lingers. I am angry it’s so hard for people to see that, though I try not to be angry at people specifically. It is hard to see. That is the nature of racism in its current incarnation: slavery may no longer be legal. It may no longer be legal to outright discriminate against people based on their race, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still happen. Historical practices such a redlining continue to have their legacy as well—one which was very obvious to me as I passed between the different neighborhoods in New Orleans and took in the people that populated them and the degree of wear on the homes, properties, and streets.

These practices are (ideally—hopefully) in the past but they are not forgotten. Their effects are still felt every day—if not by people like me, people whose middle-class status is at least in part due to my whiteness and the historical privilege whiteness retained (and, because the effects of this history are still being felt, still retains) then their effects are certainly felt by many, many people of color in this country.

All of this is frustrating to me, because not only do I want to be a better person than I am, I want our society to be better than it is. I want my generation to be able to the one that puts a stop to the ripples of our country’s shameful past and actually free its people from the shackles that history has formed. I am frustrated because I see so many people who are on board with this—but I also see so many who simply don’t want to see these problems, or who want to say “Well, we’ve all got problems” (*cough cough* this alllivesmatter bullshit *cough*).

But I’m trying to remember that all I can really do is to try to change these negative patterns in me. All I can do is try to change me, and try to point out problematic ideas and patterns (and hopefully manage to not be a bitch about it) so that, hopefully, others around me can start to recognize those harmful patterns, too. So I’ll try to do that, and I’ll try to be at peace with this being the best me I can be in this moment.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Thoughts From the Road: Nightmare

I have been driving all day. I am maybe halfway through Texas, which is much flatter than I anticipated. The sun has gone down and the sky is getting dark. It’s been a good day, and even locking my keys in my car next to Billy the Kid’s grave hasn’t shaken me too much. I’m still happy from reuniting with my friend in Taos. I had a break from the road yesterday. All is well, and I am looking forward to sleeping.

My GPS has stopped working because there is little to no internet access out here. There’s little to no cell reception, either, if that helps you to understand just how in the middle of nowhere I am.

I get dinner at a 7-11 (a turkey sandwich and some cliff bars) and I pull into a little motel on the side of the main road through this tiny, disheveled and dusty town. It consists of a long, one-story building down one side of the property, and two separate buildings in the back, each sporting only two rooms, and the office building. The property is owned and managed by an older woman with short grey hair and an apron over her clothes. She has a thick Russian accent, and goes over the details of the rental twice, to make sure we understand each other despite her broken English and my non-existent Russian. She shows me all of her calculations so I know she’s not cheating me.

  She gives me the key to a room in the back (a real, metal key with a plastic yellow tag that says “109” on it) and I let myself into my room. Despite the chipped paint and run-down look of the exterior, it’s not half bad on the inside. It’s quite nice, actually, despite the creepy closet with the door in the back padlocked on the inside and the attic access. I put my bag in front of the closet door just to make myself feel better. Tonight I will be sleeping in a clean king-size bed after washing off the sweat and travel grime in a shower made for someone much shorter than myself.

Before I sleep I read N’s most recent draft of one of his stories. As the tiredness sets in my notes grow worse in quality but I hate to leave things unfinished, so I charge on until the end. I brush my teeth and fall into bed. For reasons I can’t wholly explain I think of Marble Hornets—of Jay sleeping in his bed and Tim wearing a mask crouched on the dresser, the camera malfunctioning. But I know who the masked man is and I know what he’s doing, so the image doesn’t frighten me anymore. I fall asleep within a matter of minutes.

It is only an hour, maybe an hour and a half later when I sit up in my bed. There is someone in my room, someone standing between the closet and bathroom doors. I can see their outline in the darkness like the shimmering green shadow left on the iris by a too-bright light, their hair bristling like feathers around their head. I scream at them. I scream, “What are you doing here? What do you want? Why are you here?” I scream at them for a minute, maybe, maybe two.

Silently, they recede into the bathroom, whose door I had closed. My voice is rough but I scream after them, “Where are you going?” Then, uncertainly: “Are you there?”

I fumble for my phone, to light up the screen so I can see enough to turn on the bedside lamp. I stumble out of bed and I walk uneasily, almost drunkenly, to the still-closed bathroom door. I hit the switch on the outside of the door and burst in. I look in the shower and behind the door, but there is no one.

Then I notice myself in the mirror—my eyes bloodshot and my pupils more dilated than I can remember ever having seen them. I lean close to the mirror, wondering what is wrong with my eyes. My pupils shrink, but only fractionally. My irises are still mostly consumed by black. I am too frightening to keep looking at. I turn away and close the bathroom door again.

It occurs to me that the person may have gone under the bed while I was fumbling with my phone and the light. My phone is still in my hand (how?) so I try to turn on the flash light app. I struggle to get to the screen where the button is kept—my fingers don’t seem to be working quite right. When I finally get it on I kneel and shine the light under the bed. Nothing.

The locks are still in place on the door. No one could have come through the closet—my bag is still upright, and I never heard it fall over. I don’t think I did, anyway. I don’t remember what woke me, but…the more I think about it, the more I wonder if I was even awake while I was screaming. I worry for a moment about the neighbors, then remember there had been no car parked in front of the room next to mine and no light in the window. Had I even screamed? I think so, but I suppose I can’t really be sure.

I get back into my bed. I lay there for forty minutes with the light on, fighting the return of sleep. There is no one here but me, I know now. It was a dream, it must have been. I convince myself that it couldn’t possibly have been a ghost or any other sort of spirit, to make myself feel better. I still don’t feel better, so I pray. I am not usually the praying type but this is the second time on this trip I have prayed. These motels are not being good to be.

Finally I force myself to turn off the light. My fear is useless to me and there is nothing else I can do—nothing I can do about the fact that I can’t call or text anyone or that I can’t get online to watch a funny video to make myself feel better. I’m far too tired to get in my car and drive and even if I wasn’t, I would arrive in Austin around four am, long before my friend there would be awake. I would still be alone.

In the darkness I pray myself to sleep. I pray to my many gods to guard me while I sleep, because I don’t want to be lost here. I don’t want to die, and I am inexplicably convinced this is a very real possibility tonight. That if I die on this trip it will be tonight. And if I am attacked, all I have to fight back with are my fingernails and teeth, my elbows and knees. No weapons, no cell reception to call for help.

In the morning I get a later start than hoped. I’m still tired, my eyes are still bloodshot, but my pupils have gone down to a normal size. I don’t feel well. I feel emotionally and mentally gross, for lack of a better word. I feel Babadook feelings and I want to curl up in a hole and sleep for weeks. I have Subway for breakfast, fill my gas tank, and get out on the road.

While I drive, I wonder if I’d been sleep walking. If that might explain my eyes. The drunkenness of my movements. I wonder, if I had been sleep walking, how did I remember it all? I wonder if I had this dream because I’d thought of Marble Hornets, but I’m not afraid of the masked man anymore. Maybe some part of me remains unnerved by the isolated image? I've been reading a lot about mental illness lately, and listening to podcasts about DID. I wonder if I'm going crazy.

I struggle to shake the clinging downness in my head, but I can’t. I’m weepy. My GPS stops working again and I hit the steering wheel and scream “FUCK” before throwing my phone into a cup holder and just driving. I get directions from a small Middle Eastern woman and her son at a motel.

Eventually my GPS starts working again. I still feel off. I’m looking forward to being with a friend again tonight.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Thoughts from the Road: Dissociation

The drive from San Diego to Phoenix was actually the worst drive I’ve ever inflicted on myself/endured. Period. I knew it was going to be hot, as I was obviously driving through a desert. At some point the combination of the heat and the utter desolation that was the landscape made me feel like I was in a Mad Max movie. I passed the time for a while trying to pretend I was a young Furiosa on a long-haul.

But as the AC in my car is broken, eventually no amount of daydreaming would hold the misery at bay. It was approx. 117 degrees Fahrenheit and I was terrified of coming down with heat stroke—which, in a behavioral pattern that was so very Tahni it’s almost frightening, I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want anyone to worry. Instead I said a lot of unheard thanks for the ice chest my cousin and his wife leant me while wrapping ice in a cloth and holding it to my face and throat. When my water bottle was empty I put ice from the chest into the bottle, let it sit a few minutes, and drank it because it was already melted. At one point I didn’t drink any water for about half an hour, only to discover that the water in the bottle had heated up to a comfortable tea heat from just sitting in the cup holder.

I was actually miserable by the time I arrived in Phoenix. My head hurt, I felt a little sick (at least in part because I hadn’t eaten in far too long) and I looked and smelled like I had just crawled out of the pits of Hell. Only to find myself in Phoenix, which is essentially Hell.

I feel yuh, bro.

The hotel I stayed in was a bit stanky, but I could live with that. The guy at the front desk, however, came on to me in a way which wasn’t aggressive or directly threatening, but was just obtrusive and crude enough to make me very uncomfortable with the fact that this guy knew what room I was in. This in combination with the already feeling shitty more or less reduced me to a teary ball on the bed (after setting all of the locks and putting the chair in front of the door).

While I was laying there crying and being pissed that I was loosing water because I was crying—but also trying to sleep—I started pretending that I was someone else. Specifically I started pretending that I was Terra, one of the two main characters from my most recent fiction writing undertaking. I was crippled by loneliness in that moment so I pretended I was only waiting for Tom (the other main character) to come back from getting ice or picking up take-out. After spending far too much time watching THAC TV on my phone I finally fell asleep making believe that I was Terra and Tom would  be back any minute now.

Everything is beautiful and life is amazing.

The next day I listened to a How Things Work podcast on Dissociative Identity Disorder while I was driving to Taos. (By the way, pretty much the instant I left Phoenix the heat dropped to a half-way bearable temperature. Why would someone willingly chose to live in Hell’s Asshole Phoenix?) I was listening to this primarily because that new story I mentioned is primarily about DID. Tom has DID. I know a lot about how it works and why it works the way it does, but I learned a lot about the history of DID and the evolution of our understanding of it, which was phenomenally interesting. I also learned that there are four types of DID, including the most familiar, multiple personalities form, dissociative amnesia, dissociative fugue states, and a variation that doesn’t involve other personalities but rather involves being dissociated from one’s life in such a way that they’re experiencing their life almost in third person, rather than first. People with DID—the most severe and most well-known variety—usually experience the other three forms to varying degrees at different points in their lives, though the other  varieties don’t necessarily include multiple personalities.

This is what I was looking at while listening to this podcast.
Everything about New Mexico is better than Arizona,
in my humble opinion.

It’s a stretch, but while listening to this podcast I wondered to what degree fiction writing is a focused/controlled dissociative activity. Obviously I’m not saying that writers have a dissociative disorder of any variety, but I thought about what I was doing in Phoenix: pretending to be someone else. Someone else whose situation was just different enough from mine that she would feel relatively safe, comfortable, and not alone. It’s certainly not dissociation in this specific meaning of the word, but it falls in a similar vein. (Dissociation only means the state of being disconnected, or disconnection/separation from something, and it is something which is everyone does to some degree at different points in their lives. It’s not really a problematic thing until it becomes a disorder like the ones described above.)

Could fiction writing be said to be in a similar vein, as well? I wonder this primarily because of how involved a writer can get in the creation of a world and the people who populate it. I was so involved in the world of my recently finished novel, and so involved in the lives of the characters that I created, that the death of one of those characters reduced me to tears. I was a blubbery, snotty mess for a solid hour while finishing the end of the novel. Somehow these characters become so real to me that I move into a state of grief and mourning upon killing one of them off. And to get to that point I have to, to a degree, separate from what’s actually happening around me at any given moment. My mother could testify to this: I often get so absorbed in what I’m writing that when she walks into the room and says something to me I just about jump out of my skin because I hadn’t realized anyone had walked in. My mother is also just kind of a creepy person, though…she’s very good at sneaking up on people.

It’s probably not dissociation that I’m thinking of or experiencing in these moments so much as some sort of imaginative state. I’m not sure what that would be called, but it was kind of an interesting thing to ponder while I drove yesterday, the degrees to which we walk lines of dissociation and where those intersect with imagination and creativity. Needless to say I’m very thankful I’ve never had cause to slip over any of those lines into a disorder of any kind, but it’s interesting to take into consideration the role mild dissociative behaviors play in our daily lives and perhaps even our creative ventures.

Furthermore, I am incredibly thankful to once again be staying with someone I know and trust. What a lovely feeling that is.