bell hooks: read her work

I hope you've heard of bell hooks. She is a USian black woman, a Buddhist, an artist, an acclaimed feminist theorist, cultural critic, and writer. Her work is focused around understanding the ways in which systems of exploitation and oppression intersect, and ending them through education and relationship.

In my opinion, the best way to get to know bell hooks is through her writing. She has written for 40 years on the interplay of racism and sexism in daily life. Highlights of her work, for me, include Feminism is for Everybody, We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, Teaching to Transgress: Education As The Practice Of Freedom, and All About Love, but every single one of her works is worth reading, with care and attention.

You can also see her in action by looking up "bell hooks" on Youtube. There are many videos of her giving lectures, seminars and interviews.

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Civil liberties — UK and USA

Liberty (the National Council for Civil Liberties in the UK) and the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) are important organisations to know about if you’re in the UK or the USA respectively, especially if you’re engaging in civil disobedience, or want to support those who do.

Liberty was founded in 1934. Its work involves campaigning for civil liberties and human rights in the UK. It is independent of any other organisation, political or otherwise. At the date of writing (update on 16th June 2018), their priority campaigns are: pushing the UK government to end indefinite detention for immigrants; and #keepbritainkind, a campaign to put human rights at the heart of British politics. You can join Liberty as a member, take part in petitions and campaigns, or donate.

The ACLU was formed in the years following WWI in response to draconian, unlawful action against 'radicals', as the US government feared a revolution similar to that which formed the USSR in 1917. Its work now is focused around upholding the US constitution against the constant attacks it currently faces. The ACLU accepts donations and has various campaigns which individuals can take part in.

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Be the Change: 5 tips for activists from Autostraddle

Autostraddle describes itself as "an intelligent, hilarious & provocative voice and a progressively feminist online community for multiple generations of kickass lesbian, bisexual & otherwise inclined ladies (and their friends)". Mainly aimed at a younger cohort, it nonetheless has resources and information relevant to all ages, as well as all genders and all orientations.

At the beginning of 2017 they published Be the Change: 5 Tips for Queer Activists Charging Into 2017  by KaeLyn, a response to the horror of USians about to begin living under a Trump presidency.

While the title makes the content sound very specific, it in fact contains information and reminders that apply to activists of all vintages, orientations, and experience levels, to whit:

  1. Avoid burnout.
  2. Think intersectionally.
  3. Act in solidarity.
  4. Use your privilege for good.
  5. Know and respect your limits.

It's well worth reading at any time.

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Capacitar International

Capacitar International uses a hands-on approach to teach simple wellness practices around the world, for free. They are especially committed to communities affected by violence, poverty and trauma, and work towards solidarity, understanding and reconciliation.

Their approach is based in popular education and community peer support, which is not only in itself empowering for communities affected by trauma, but also means that as an organisation they are able to reach a large number of people with a small amount of resource.

They have a number of programmes, including multicultural wellness, trauma healing, caring for carers, and organisational development, as well as gatherings, workshops and retreats.

Their website has a free download of simple healing and wellness techniques, available in multiple languages. It contains a wealth of practices from a number of different modalities, which can be used alone or with a partner:

  • breathwork
  • Tai Chi
  • fingerholds
  • EFT -- Emotional Freedom Technique
  • energy holds (partnered)
  • acupressure (partnered)

The document is a little difficult to read, due to design and layout, but is a gem, nonetheless.

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National Coalition-Building Institute

The National Coalition-Building Institute does extremely effective work in reducing prejudice, resolving conflict, and welcoming diversity, based in the model of co-counselling. Most of its work is in the USA, but it has chapters around the world.

It works in two main ways: through training, and through supportive cohorts in localities and within organisations.

Their one-day Welcoming Diversity workshop is unique in the field. It starts from the premise that we all have prejudices and stereotypes that we carry around in our head, and each training begins with active permission to make mistakes in front of one another. It moves on to recognising all aspects of diversity in the room, into caucus groups around identities present in the room which feed back to the whole group, and finally practising how to make effective interventions in the moment when we see prejudice and discrimination in action.

Peppered throughout are 'speak outs' from individuals who have experienced prejudice and discrimination, giving direct insight into the impact of that. This sounds simple, but is, in my experience, an absolutely transformational aspect of the training, both for the speaker and the audience.

Their two-day Leadership training follows a similar pattern, but goes into more depth on the process involved in leading the training, in supporting individuals who are giving speak-outs, and in mediating interpersonal and intergroup conflicts. Once you have gone through the Leadership training, you gain access to annual retreats, and you are then free to develop a local chapter, to cover a geographical area, or to welcome diversity and reduce prejudice within an organisation.

As a Leader of a chapter, you also get personal support from another chapter leader to face the issues and personal button-pushing which you will inevitably experience in a leadership position.

I have been a personal fan of NCBI's work for 20 years. My one caveat with their model, though, is that it is not appropriate for everyone. That is because the speak-out process, and the support given in retreats and one to one, is based in co-counselling and thus relies on emotional catharsis. While it can be deeply healing and transformative for most people, there are people for whom it can be unhealthy, including people with unaddressed trauma, and some people who are neuro-atypical.

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This wild and precious human life

You may have noticed, I've not been posting here lately. That's because, after some life turbulence, I've returned to this question, yet again:

"...what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" -- Mary Oliver

I'm not like some people, who know exactly what their work is, who have a clear and direct vocation. I don't have one 'thing' I'm here to do. Or, rather, my 'thing' is being with what is, together; finding out what could be, together; uncovering stories around what is, and creating new ones, together.

This has in the past found fulfilment in community development, participatory action research, massage therapy, ceremonial work, spiritual coaching, storytelling, youth work, and teaching; in paid work and volunteer work and workers' co-operatives and self-employment.

But what is its fulfilment now, at this point in space and time, with me as I am, in all my frailties and glories?

I've given myself that question as homework for the next few weeks and months, and I've started to notice prompts and hints in the world around me that are helping me to explore it.

For example, this morning, I read this post by Heather Plett, about what it means to 'hold space'. In it, she talks of the space which we hold -- when we hold such space deeply -- as 'liminal space'. She describes liminal space as:

...a period in which something... has been dissolved and a new thing has not yet emerged to take its place. It’s that period of uncertainty, ambiguity, restlessness, fear, discomfort, and anguish. [To which I would add hope, excitement, playfulness, and creativity -- Elinor.] ...

Holding that kind of space is one of the most sacred acts we can do for each other. When we do it, we are standing on holy ground.

This feels absolutely key and core to my work in the world. When I am my strongest self, this is what I do: I create and hold this kind of space, this kind of container for whatever needs to unfold. Healing, deepening, transformation. Joy, grief. Being with what is. Creating what will be.

It is a loving, caring, unconditional, and non-attached place to be. There is a deep mothering and midwifing power to it. Even though I have neither given birth nor adopted or fostered a child in this life, the energy of Powerful Mother flows through me.

This is not an easy energy for me to accept, and an even more difficult one for me to allow to flourish. But I know that for me to fulfil my purpose, it is an energy that I must learn to accept and embrace. 

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All we ever have is now

A brief memoir of sociopolitics and illness

Gandhi said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” 

Gandhi didn’t say, “Then you start all over again.” 

He probably should have.


“Are you better?”

I get that question a lot — from friends, from acquaintances, sometimes from family members.

In fact, I was asked that question just last week. When it came, I was tired, hungry, aching, and low on cognitive function; also, stressed, full of anxiety, and falling over the lip of depression. For long moments, all I could do was look at my kind, concerned neighbour with my mouth slightly open. Then I scoffed, and told her that I don’t get better: I have bad days, and not so bad days, because I have chronic illnesses. 

I’m not usually so ungracious in my response. I know the question is kindly meant, a request after my state of wellbeing. But it’s also a challenge, an unconscious demand that I fit the narrative  of progress; all too often, it sounds like, “Aren’t you better yet?” and underneath that, “How dare you still be ill?”


I’m  awake, lying in bed, muscles full of lassitude, eyes drooping. The sky is light, or it is cloudy, bright with stars, or pitch black, or blue and sunny. 

I don’t know what time it is. I don’t know what day it is. I drift: on exhaustion, on pain, on a deep, persistent ache in my  chest and gut that has no physical cause. 

I close my eyes; I open them. A minute has gone by — or is it an hour, or a day, or a night? 

Time is irrelevant. There is only now.


One  of the most pernicious ideas in modern and contemporary thought, especially liberal and left-wing thought, is that positive change happens in a linear fashion, that society goes from bad to better to good to best. It doesn’t matter whether the idea is couched in a rhetoric of revolution, or one of incremental progress, the foundation of that rhetoric is the same: things get better over time.

But sometimes (often; always) they don’t. Sometimes, things get better, then they get worse, then they get better. Sometimes, things get worse, then they get better, then they get worse. Always, some things are getting  better, and some things are getting worse. There is no smooth trajectory of improvement.

I grew up in the English Midlands. When I was in my teens and early 20s, I used to love the idea that things were always getting better, that all is for the best, in the end. It really seemed that way, for a while. Yes, through the 1980s and early 1990s many things got worse: HIV and AIDS arrived, killing a generation of gay and bisexual men, and sex workers and intravenous drug users of all genders; the unions were smashed, public services were sold off to the highest bidder, social housing was sold off to private buyers, carpet-baggers were all over the formerly mutual building societies; and a pointless war was waged in Iraq without the public’s consent. But on the other hand, the Poll Tax was defeated; women, ethnic minorities, and LGBT people were demanding — and getting — more respect; the Cold War was over; HIV and AIDS treatments became more effective; and by 1997  “Things could only get better”*.

Except they didn’t.

After an initial flush of hope, New Labour turned out to be Tories in disguise. Amongst other things, they brought in Public Private Partnerships and Private Finance Initiatives, which continued to privatise the profits and socialise the costs of public services, while hiding everything from the public, we who were supposedly being served by these arrangements, under watertight commercial confidentiality agreements. 

Then came the second Iraq war, the illegal one, for which no-one has yet to be held legally accountable. If the first Iraq war made me doubt democracy, the second made me downright cynical. Things weren’t getting better, they were just going on the same way as  they had for hundreds of years — war for profit, profit for war, and the  people united and easily controlled through fear and hatred of The Enemy. 

On the back of 9/11, the second Iraq war, and the  ongoing, never-ending “War on Terror,” racism and xenophobia increased, and while things got better for some LGBT people (mainly cisgendered, white, homonormative, abled, comfortably off, gay men), misogyny started running rampant once again.

When the “It Gets Better” campaign** started, I made positive sounds on the outside, but inside, I alternated between grim laughter and rage.


Time trickles
like a speeding hare, bolts past
like treacle. It makes me
dizzy, head spinning, waiting,

still and
waiting,

waiting
for this moment,
any moment,
to come within reach.


I have very few childhood memories of being entirely happy, entirely  healthy. I began to experience symptoms of depression at 8 years old,  and of fibromyalgia at 12. I was finally diagnosed with depression when I  was 37, and with fibromyalgia when I was 41. I also strongly suspect that I am neurodivergent, with many signs throughout my life of having  inattentive ADD and being autistic.

For three decades, I struggled to understand, and to cope with, two chronic illnesses and neurodivergence. In my early adolescence, my parents took me to a homeopath, and dosed me with endless vitamin and mineral supplements. As a teen, I was tested for glandular fever, for hypothyroidism, for  goodness knows how many other ailments and maladies. According to all the tests, which my doctor undertook again and again, I was perfectly fit and healthy. 

Yet under the veneer of my appearance as an abled person was a disabled person, whose needs were never acknowledged -- not even discovered, let alone met.

My lowest point came in 1987. Or was it in 1990? Or was it 1996, or 2007, or 2014? 

My best days were in 1989. Or was it in 1992? Or was it 1994, or 2000, or 2009?

Having chronic illnesses means my life doesn’t fit the tidy narrative of challenge, action, crisis, integration, triumph, the ‘universal story’ of progress. There is no beginning, no end; no single challenge to overcome; no single crisis over which to triumph. There is only the  messy in between, in which narrative and time stop and start and jump, flashing forward and backward, but never landing in the same place twice

A friend once said to me, “The most radical thing you can have is a long memory.”

We were talking at the time about the political consciousness — or lack of it — of our  university students, a few years ago, when I was well enough for a while to work in the world. We both remembered the British Miners’  Strike, she all the more vividly as the child of a County Durham mining  family. And we had both learned, in our political upbringing, about the General Strike, the Jarrow Marches, going back and back in British labour history to the Tolpuddle Martyrs. 

I don’t often think of my life with chronic illnesses as in any way radical, but it is; it is. I  have a long memory: I remember having better health than I have now, of being able to do more; I remember having worse health than I have now, of being able to do less. 

Always, I have dwelt in the liminal land between wellness and illness, between society and loneliness, neither productive nor unproductive, sometimes nurturing, sometimes needing nurture, never able to be placed by either capitalism or patriarchy into one box or another.

There is no progress in my health, and there is no cure. All I have to do is look back into my past experience, to look at my life as a whole, to confirm that that is true. I do not know what is to come, but it would be foolish of me to imagine that the future holds anything different. There is no point in me planning for a life that relies on my wellness, when that wellness is a pipe dream. Looking back, I know that I must plan for life with me as I am, not as I could wish to be, not as the “It Gets Better” narrative would have me be.

There is no salvation coming. There will be no revolution to right all wrongs. There can be no end game, no final roll of the dice, no ultimate victory or defeat. 

Understand, this is not, this is never a counsel of despair.

Because there is still today, with its struggles and joys, its choices and responsibilities, its love and fear. We live now, even as we are  informed, bolstered, uplifted, and warned by the stories of the past. 

Time is irrelevant. The future is non-existent. The past is made of memory.

There is only now.


Footnotes:

*  “Things can only get better” is a pop song by D:Ream, used by New  Labour in the 1997 British general election, which heralded the beginning of the party’s 11 years in government.

** A crowd-sourced video campaign started by Dan Savage in 2010, aimed at giving LGBT young people a message of  hope in order to prevent suicide.


Image credit: 'To the classrooms' by Marten Bjork on Unsplash 

Title from 'All We Have Is Now' by The Flaming Lips


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