returning to life: combining activism and spirituality to heal

I have felt dead inside for several months. Depression, grief, anger, fear. So many emotions coming up while processing and healing from violent sexual assault.

But in the last weeks I have felt reborn. A combination of circumstances, the dawning of springtime, the support of my loved ones, and hard personal work has landed me in a much better place. I can’t predict the future, or know that it will all be alright, but I am able to see a warmth returning to my present moment. A hopeful, reassuring warmth that maybe healing is possible. 

I find myself incredibly grateful that I am alive. I find myself noticing movement in my body that feels good and refreshing, not only the pain. I am suddenly able to experience joy, and really feel it. After months of feeling either numb or miserable, joy is delicious.

I know this isn’t the end of the struggle. Perhaps it will be a short break. But I also know that there were times during the winter that the hopelessness felt endless. I didn’t know if it would transform. And yet, like everything, indeed it has.

As a survivor who chose to tell the story of my assault to the public, and who knows that this process was (for me–every individual is different) a very crucial part of my healing, I would like to share a quote from a friend and incredibly inspirational hero, Wagatwe Wanjuki, from an interview on MSNBC“I really hope that survivors of all identities of color, queer, low-income, with disabilities, trans, gender nonconforming, from community college, in relationships, etc. – will find it easier have their stories heard.” – Wagatwe Wanjuki.

I stand humbled by my privilege and committed to working towards a world where this hope articulated by Wagatwe becomes increasingly possible.

In addition to the activism work I did in speaking out (again, something that is a choice some survivors make, but not something to be pushed on any survivor–healing is all about choice) I also have had to step away from the public, and even from other people, in order to heal. It can be lonely, but this inward time has also felt very necessary for me. Having a spiritual life has always been extremely important to me, and though I am exploring my Jewish roots, a politically painful, challenging, but also rewarding task, I also do not feel grounded in a specific religion, but rather, pulled to words, rituals, and practices that move my spirit.

Recently I have discovered a beautiful song by Sikh musician Snatam Kaur called “Servant of Peace” that includes a beautiful recitation of the Saint Francis of Assisi Prayer “Make Me An Instrument.” The words sung in her heavenly voice have been guiding and consoling.

“Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

-St. Francis of Assisi, 13th Century

It is with deep gratitude for the activists, artists, and seekers who have come before me that I feel able to connect with the universe in a new and rejuvenated life.

© 2015 Lena Sclove

depression, freedom, and the peaceful revolution

What if we were free and the system collapsed but there was not chaos or war because we were free in ourselves and the revolution came slowly, gently like a dance, and what if we were free?

This morning I woke up depressed and hopeless and was identifying with those emotions. And then I had a second of clarity and discovered I was obsessively trying to figure out why I was feeling so depressed. I was racking my brain for reasons, for something that was terribly wrong. But nothing was working so my anxiety was getting higher and higher. When I noticed this, I felt a separation occur in my mind. I felt the physical feeling of being depressed and I felt the chaotic stirring of my brain trying to make sense of the senseless. When this separation occurred the melancholy did not disappear, but a wave of relief did wash over me. And for a moment, I did feel free.

An unexpectedly light-hearted afternoon with a dear friend made me feel caffeinated. Jazzed up. A feeling of possibilities.

Many times this week I have wanted to skip town. I have wanted to escape because the work of healing the mind and the body is treacherous and a voice in my head suggests if I ran away from it all, I could reinvent myself. But I am reinventing myself. It’s just more painful than I could have ever predicted. I know my demons and ghosts would follow me on the bus or train or plane. But isn’t it wonderful to daydream, sometimes, about starting completely over? About a clean slate?

I am finding freedom in hopelessness. I have no idea what I am doing right now except healing. It gets very tiresome. It gets boring. It is my work. Though I often feel I don’t deserve the title, I still strive to be a freedom fighter in the most radical sense of the term. I am in the movement. I am in the peaceful revolution. But I am in my turtle shell for now, allowing my presence to be all that I can offer. Desperately needing that to be enough. What if I let go? What if I release my plans, and my need to succeed and my need to be somebody and my desperate need to be a good person all the time? What if in that separation between my depression and the monkey-mind brain nonsense trying to make sense of the depression—or between a traumatic event and the desperate attempt to find a way that I could have avoided it—what if in those slight chasms a world of freedom is opening. Beyond education and career and success and failure, maybe there is something bigger. Maybe I have been tied in an invisible net for long enough and as it becomes visible I realize I not longer need it. It is no longer protecting me. Perhaps it is time to give myself permission to be free.

© 2015 Lena Sclove

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bayard rustin, a. philip randolph, “allyship”, and the 1963 march on washington

State of the Re:Union on NPR aired a wonderful segment today on the great yet often skipped-over Civil Rights activist Bayard Rustin. I had watched a fabulous documentary of Rustin called Brother Outsider in a most memorable class I took with Professor Elmo Terry-Morgan at Brown University called “Black Lavender: African American Gay and Lesbian Plays in the American Theater.” When I saw the film I was saddened, though not surprised, by how much I had heard about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and how I had never even heard the name Bayard Rustin. This in itself is an important story of how intersecting identities play out in the context of social movements.

Rustin was the one to introduce King to the ideas of nonviolent social action. He was the architect of the March on Washington, and many other nonviolent events, such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. However, Rustin was also a gay man. What would it mean for the Civil Rights Movement to have a known gay man seen as a lead organizer?

I highly recommend you listen to the radio segment, or watch the film, for the entire story of Rustin’s full and complex life. Below I will just discuss one moment of the radio segment, but please know this is just a moment, not the story of Rustin’s whole life or identity.

Today’s radio program told of one crucial moment that made way for Rustin to be able to continue his work planning the March on Washington faced with a major setback: “The fall of the meticulous planning Bayard is doing: there are some things he has no control over. Bayard had been very frightened or worried that the gay issue would come up before the march. And Strom Thurmond [bitter enemy of de-segregation] took the floor of the Senate, maybe three or four weeks before the date of the march…and rails against Bayard and the march. He calls Bayard a draft-dodger, a communist, a homosexual, and includes details of his arrest. Panic spreads through the march’s office….But A. Philip Randolph would not be coward. Randolph calls a press conference because they have to deal with it, and Randolph, who qA nothing if not extremely dignified said that ‘how dare a segregationist like Strom Thurmond condemn someone for immorality. We stand by Bayard Rustin. He is our organizer. He is Mr. March on Washington.’ And it’s that moment really that is the end of using the gay charge against Rustin effectively. 

Activists disagree on whether the word “ally” is useful, or if it has been too watered down or become too problematic. Activists, especially in the context of organizing around rape and sexual assault, also have differing views on bystander intervention. However, if ever there was an ally move, what Randolph said at that press conference seems like the one. Standing by Rustin, having his back, and making it about the inhumane ideology of Thumond, instead of accusations against leader Rustin….to me it seemed like Randolph intervened in a way that not only saved the march and the movement, but saved Rustin from the pain and humiliation of yet another atrocious attack. Rustin went on to be the one to read the demands of the March on Washington after King’s I Have a Dream Speech. 

march

Later in his life Rustin would go on to be active in the gay rights movement, and use his organizing skills there. Through a long-term relationship, he was able to build more positive connotations with his gay identity after being harassed by it for so long. There is so much to say about this individual. For now I would just like to honor how history (and uncovering parts of history that have been hidden) can demonstrate (despite all the terrible news we are inundated with constantly), distinct moments when good steps were taken in the name of justice.

It’s Black History Month… and I’m angry.

Amazing poem by Jasmine Mwanaisha.
Hell yes, Solidarity, Anger, Consciously choosing not be blind. Yes Yes Yes

READ ME TWICE

My eyes roll counter-clockwise as if to dial back enough time to catch myself from swinging.

My soul makes sounds for words my mouth hasn’t learned to form yet

This heavy burden grieves me

The weight of atrocity that some have the option to not see

Like changing the channel on TV – they can easily remove themselves from my reality.

But the reality is I’m still grieving.

View original post 610 more words

sexual assault and the language of justice

Right now I am thinking about justice and how we say we will “work for justice” but sometimes work isn’t a strong enough word for me.

TRIGGER WARNING: SEXUAL ASSAULT, RAPE, RACISM, HOMOPHOBIA

I just read an article about male sexual assault survivors and specifically a case at Brown University. The article references my case and the current federal investigations at Brown. I feel overwhelmed by anger and grief and horror that this is still happening like this. I stand in such strong solidarity with survivors everywhere, and am so glad people are able to come forward. I wish we were being listened to more powerfully and swiftly.

Thinking about racism, classism, homophobia, and their intersection with rape culture, the concept of working for justice just doesn’t feel enough for me in this moment.

I work for justice.

I also CRAVE justice.

I HUNGER for justice.

I CRY for justice.

I PRAY for justice.

I SCREAM for justice.

I SLEEP for justice.

I SURVIVE for justice.

justice justice justice

There are too many of us and too little is being done and yes we need to work but we also need to honor the parts of ourselves that NEED justice, whatever that means to us. Justice is more than an abstract concept to be worked on. Peaceful, non-violent, but POWERFUL and REDEMPTIVE and LIBERATORY justice. I stand in solidarity with male survivors of sexual assault and with Andrew at Brown and with survivors everywhere, whether we come forward or not. I also think it’s time we start conversations about the language of justice, and what we really need from institutions and support networks in order to feel that social justice is in fact more than a fluff term. I want more meaning in the words. I want more done with the words. I want us to talk about what we don’t have the words to say.

ode to pete seeger

Pete Seeger died last week

and the year is 2014 and

i am home with a nasty condition of healing-needed

and can’t seem to do much but list

the songs i would like to learn on the banjo

to keep him alive

not the man but

the time when there was juice pouring out

of a person who had so much to say and

insufficient years to say it all. i feel i have the time

and the years

and the loads to express

but i don’t have the clarity to say it just right

and so i list

and wonder if what i have to say about

violence and healing

could ever mean something to people the way

Pete meant something to so many

did Pete wonder

if people would give a crap what he wrote?

or did he just have to chase it out of his mind

before it chased him into the sea?

i am chasing something that will devour me

if i don’t win

but what is it

and where is it going

and will anyone care?

and how I wish I had a friend like Pete

to read my poems and tell me if they are just plain horseshit

or if maybe I should keep going

quotes in tribute to dr. martin luther king jr.

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I pulled some of my favorites books by African American authors off my bookshelf. I am sharing some quotes from these treasured works in tribute to MLK, the Civil Rights Movement, Social Justice, Racial Justice, and Liberation for all. I stand in strong solidarity with the marchers and protesters today who are linking the legacy of Dr. King with the current injustices as seen recently in Ferguson, Staten Island, and so so so many other places. I stand in solidarity and I mourn the loss and oppression of good and innocent people and I celebrate the incredible work and contributions in every walk of life that African Americans have been making for centuries. NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE.

“Martin Luther King, Jr., had asked us to do something really hard. Many people felt he had asked us to do something impossible. He had asked us to embrace nonviolence as a way of life. When he died by the gun, for many, many people, in the Movement and out of it, there was a feeling of release. We can’t do it, many felt; we can’t live as nonviolently as Martin Luther King, Jr., did (and once again the white man–in the person of King’s assassin–has demonstrated why.)…Our communities did erupt in violence, many of them; several went up into flames….The rage, the laughter, the feeling of being relieved of a burden too noble for mere persecuted humans to bear. And underneath everything, the longing for the presence of the Beloved. Deeply missing him. The one who loved us and saw us and stayed with us, knowing he would not survive his blatant love for us; not survive his vibrant, dancing life.” Alice Walker, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, pp. 169-170

“You may well ask: ‘Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?’ You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.” -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter From a Birmingham Jail

“In a paradoxical sense, once I accepted my position as different from the larger society as well as from any single sub-society–Black or gay–I felt I didn’t have to try so hard. To be accepted. To look femme. To be straight. To look straight. To be proper. To look “nice.” To be liked. To be loved. To be approved. What I didn’t realize was how much harder I had to try merely to stay alive, or rather, to stay human. How much stronger a person I became in that trying.” -Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, p. 181

“Black people are victims of an enormous amount of violence. None of those things can take place without the complicity of the people who run the schools and the city.” -Toni Morrison

“YOUTH

We have tomorrow

Bright before us

Like a flame.

Yesterday

A night-gone thing,

A sun-down name.

And dawn-today

Broad arch above the road we came.

We march!”

-Langston Hughes, The Dream Keeper and Other Poems, p. 65

“The fate of millions of people—indeed the future of the black community itself—may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society.” -Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

“And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'” -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream Speech, March on Washington, 1963

cultural appropriation: the importance of saying “i messed up”

I was sitting at work (at a local independent bookstore) and noticed a group of four college-aged people pointing and laughing at my book on display. I watched as I heard one say, “that’s just wrong.” And I cringed because I agreed with them. The cover of my book alone could be the parody cover of a book about cultural appropriation. A white girl wearing Indian clothing surrounded by dark-skinned Indian boys and a subtitle: “The Memoir of an American Teen Who Dared to Be Different.” More like the story of a white girl of privilege who had the opportunity handed to her by her parents to live abroad during high school.

Still hours later, I feel a sinking feeling in my stomach. I have often been the person to point out books, movies, posters, advertisements, etc. that are incredibly racially (or otherwise) problematic. If I had never seen the book before I probably would have had a similar response as the visitors in the bookstore today.

But I have seen the book before. I wrote that book. I wrote that book one year before I learned the term “white privilege” and devoted myself to educating myself as much as possible about racism, global and national white supremacy, and my own privilege.

Do I feel shame that the book is mine? Yes. Do I think it is important for white folks to acknowledge that the things they did in their “past lives” (before “waking up” to unpacking their own white privilege) and to be open about it–yes. We can’t take back what we did or who we were. We can use those experiences to push other white folks to wake up. My reflections about my own writing almost a decade ago can be painful, but they can also show how much my thinking and consciousness have changed. And is that not what needs to happen for white folks to finally get on board with fighting racism and oppression? A shift in consciousness? I would say yes. I would also say yes to documenting and sharing our missteps along the way. As a writer, I will always try to speak my truth. But my truth changes. At the time when I wrote the book, I knew what I knew. I did my best. Now I know I can do better. I think the urge for white folks (especially those with class privilege as well) to try to pretend that we are and always were perfect anti-racist activists or allies or however you identify–I think that is not only is impossible, but it is completely unproductive.

About an hour after the college students left the bookstore, a young teenager walked in and picked my book up off the shelf and when her dad came in behind her she said to him, “Dad, someone wrote this when they were fourteen! Maybe I could write a book!”

I couldn’t help but smile. When we are young we don’t know everything there is to know about injustice, especially coming from white, privileged backgrounds. But if we practice finding out voices early, then hopefully we will “wake up,” and when we do, we will be practiced at using our voices in the medium that feels most comfortable. I hope that teenager goes home and starts writing. I hope it serves her now, and I hope it serves her ten years from now, when she realizes she thinks completely differently then she did when she was younger.

Here’s to being honest as much as possible. As a writer. As an activist. As a person.

“africa doesn’t need a savior. america needs a savior.” + reflections on my time in india

Some very important points are made in this NYTimes Op-Doc, An African’s Message for America, featuring a Kenyan activist, Boniface Mwangi, discussing with high school and college students the impulse to volunteer abroad, especially in India, Africa, and the Middle East, instead of investing in local communities back home. Watching the film led me to reflect on my experience living with my parents in a boys’ orphanage in India when I was fourteen. I strongly recommend you watch the op-doc by Cassandra Herrman (only six and a half minutes.) First I will share some of the quotes I found especially important. Then my personal reflections about my time in India follow below the quotes.

Boniface Mwangi: “I can’t hold myself back when there’s injustice. I can’t.”

Duke University Student: “There is a clear sense of glorification and there’s a sense of this faux-heroism and then I’m here doing very similar work and people aren’t as excited by it.”

Boniface Mwangi: There’s a quote, it’s a Nigerian quote. ‘Until the lion has it’s own storytellers, the hunter will always be glorified.’ That’s what we need in Africa, we need the people who live in Africa to tell their own stories.”

Student: “The problem is how you frame the issue. You’re not going there to save anybody. You’re going there to save yourself….these experiences played a part in them getting a job. So they are the people who benefit, it’s not Africans.” 

Boniface Mwangi: “As you try to save the world, you’re neglecting the issues at home….If you abroad you think America is all rosy and beautiful and things work. And cops do their job. And then you come here and realize that cops lock up innocent people. You come here and realize that cops discriminate against people of color. They shoot them. They arrest them.”

Boniface Mwangi: “I think that Africa doesn’t need a savior. America needs a savior.”

*     *     *

When I was fourteen years old I lived with my parents in a boys’ orphanage and Hindu ashram in Varanasi, India, for nine months. That was in 2006. In high school and college when I began studying critical race theory and racial justice politics, I felt a great deal of shame about this experience. That we did something wrong by going.

I can’t speak for my parents, but it is my understanding that their intention was never to go there and save the orphans or the people of Varanasi. They were seeking a spiritual experience with their spiritual teacher in the most historically spiritual place of his lineage. They knew they were going for themselves, and that was okay. They also were going for me, because as parents they knew it would be a profoundly life-changing experience for a young teenager to have, which of course it was.

I remember watching the children of the orphanage get attached to our family and other westerners who visited temporarily, only to see them leave, and I knew it was unsustainable. I wanted to be absolutely involved in the children’s daily lives for ME, because it made me feel more alive, and it gave me the feeling of a big family and of siblings that I didn’t have growing up. But that wasn’t what was best for the children. Since our visit many changes have occurred in that place, and it is now run much more by people who live in India permanently, and there are clear boundaries set for western visitors.

I wrote a book about my experiences during that year, titled The Year of a Thousand Colors (for sale locally at Booklink Booksellers in Northampton, MA, and also on Amazon.com here) and I have experienced a lot of shame about the book. Not only because I wrote it when I was fourteen and therefore I have grown a great deal as a writer since then, but also because it is clear evidence of what some might call a selfish thing that we did.

And yet, that experience led me to return to the United States, begin volunteering at a domestic violence shelter when I was sixteen, join racial justice movements, become a radical activist and community organizer….

I do think travel changes us. Being white, upper-middle-class, my eyes were opened by my experience in India. I came back home desperate to uncover where there was injustice in my local community. Of course you don’t have to go to India (or even leave your town or city, most likely) to experience this eye-opening if you are from a privileged background. But because white supremacy and segregation and gentrification and so many other things, injustice is often (intentionally) kept hidden from those growing up steeped in privilege.

I can’t change my story. And I also can’t suggest that people, especially young people, don’t travel, because the cliche is most certainly true–travel opens one’s eyes to the realities of their homelands. That said, I think the point this Op-Doc makes about intention is very important. If you are traveling to a place you believe has less than you, FIRST learn about those in your local communities that have less. Then spend a great deal of time interrogating what “less” means. Less money? Less infrastructure? Less safety from police and state violence? How do you define “having” and “wealth.” Very important to think about before going abroad. (And this self-interrogation will likely change how you see home, too). And finally, know why you are going. You are going for yourself. And if that is what you need to do in your life journey (as it was in my family’s when we went to India) then it is okay. But be authentic. And when you come home, don’t pretend injustice isn’t present here. Don’t be a savior abroad, but be careful how you are a savior here. How the “faux-glorification” spoken about in the Op-Doc exists in U.S., too, for young people from privileged backgrounds who work in “community service” or “underprivileged communities” (I use quotes here because they are heavily racially coded terms and extremely problematic).

Perhaps someday I will write a second edition of my book with a deep reflection on what it means to live abroad, and what I have learned about the experience since then. For now what I can say is that without a doubt, the people I encountered in Varanasi saved me, and led me to the path I am on today. I did not save them. Thank you Mr. Mwangi for your work and for forcing viewers to ask themselves hard questions. The hardest questions lead us to the most important work.