What’s Wrong with Being Wrong (?)

It was a blog post I hadn’t thought twice about. My artistic abilities were proudly Mennonite Humbly on display. The info book-researched and personally connected. The white ladies had put the finishing touches on their assignments. The Victim, Villain, Heroine project was complete.

Or so I thought. Then mom came to town.

The Cousin Lydia I reported on in my last blog post is a figment of my imagination, or at least the way I recreated her story is. While the Cousin Lydia whose photo and date of birth and death I found in  Mast Family History lived, died, taught at a girl’s school as a missionary in India, and is indeed my distant cousin, she is not the family relative that inspired my grandfather’s medical career and set the trajectory of my family lineage into white professional assimilation – as I so eloquently blogged about in my original post. In my weaving of family lore, memories, and analysis, I had in fact conflated two other people merging their roles into late 19th Century Cousin Lydia’s convenient persona. I had not conflated family members intentionally, yet conflate I had.

VVH Cousin Lydia Heroine; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

So let me set the record correct. My grandfather was inspired to go abandon the family farm and go into medicine, not because of late 19th Century Cousin Lydia, but because of physician, Dr. CJ Esch, who worked in India and is most likely of no relation. Another Cousin Lydia, this one of the 20th Century variety, was a missionary in Red Lake, Canada who my mom and her siblings visited bringing back tales of pontoon planes, campfires, and moose liver.

More interesting to me (and perhaps to you) than the actual correction of these factoids is the amount of energy it took for me to work through my resistance to being wrong and making correction. Astute readers will note, it has been 90 days since my last confession blog post.

VVH Cousin Lydia Victim; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Right around the time of my mama’s visit I attended the Creative Nonfiction Writer’s Conference and sat through a workshop on fact checking. Ugh. Fact checking. The workshop, which was sophisticated and nuanced and seemed to have some understanding of the subjective biases carried by all humans, still touted the critical all importance of facts. As an anti-racist feminist whose life work has been built from a foundational assumption that facts bounce off frames* and that the ways we see the world are framed by our lived experience, power, and how the world sees us**, I spent the entirety of the workshop very resistant to the notion of facts. Rather than listening to the tips and arguments put forth by the fact checking team, I invested in a mental dialogue of poking holes in their presentation and getting quite huffy at the gigantic bother of facts. Just like Al Gore and our Alt Right cousins, I was saying facts are oh so inconvenient.

My life is fact, I thought.

Why would I need/want/look for anything more, I complained.

Objectivity is such a white male framework, I accused.

And it is.

But if I’m more honest with myself now than I was able to be then, my feelings of resistance are hands down emotionally lazy, and also shaped by a convenient one right way perfectionism that is attached to effortless rightness. You could substitute that phrase for an attachment to effortless whiteness.

VVH Cousin Lydia Villain; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Have I mentioned I’m writing a book? The yearlong process of which has been fraught with motivation and the fear of trying, confidence and insecurity, practicing naming my truth unapologetically and living in their consequences, exposing my vulnerabilities and acknowledging that in so doing I’m also exposing the vulnerabilities of others. The process of becoming brave enough to write my truth has meant a constant grappling with the insecurities I’ve been conditioned to believe while I fight the silent cloud of silence brought on by conflict avoidant white liberalism.

But my speaking of truth does not forego listening. In defending my heart and in order to tamper down the pain of how others receive my truth, I have been tempted to open my mouth and close my ears. When my mother challenged my version of Cousin Lydia, in that moment I really wasn’t that interested in challenging myself. I was annoyed, irritated, already done with that post and that project and ready to move on to new more exciting adventures. My resistance didn’t entirely surprise me, by my heightened awareness of it sure did.

In an effort to be more vulnerable and relational, I have offered up a space for dialogue and feedback on the book in progress to certain family members and friends. This move has been important and powerful and a painful knot untangling. Despite dialogue and truth tellings and listenings, the painful knot of relational exchange does not feel any more resolved. It perhaps never will. I am learning that in listening to others, with as much love as I can muster in the moment, this process might still lead to disappointment, to messy disconnection. For as much as getting solid on my truth doesn’t forego listening to others, it also doesn’t necessarily mean accepting and integrating others’ truths into my own. The powerful, terrifying thing is that at the end of the day I decide which facts and frames I let in and which ones I keep out, which ones I work with and compost and which ones I throw out. The powerful thing is that you do too.

*George Lakoff Don’t Think of An Elephant

**Every womanist/feminist ever

Snow White Denial – On Being the Victim, Villain, and Heroine

written by AMANDA GROSS

My grandmother was recently moved to an assisted living facility. At 92 and 2/3rds, she now has a 250 square foot space (actually intended for double occupancy) all to herself, that has a view of the mountains and a bird feeder with it cheery seasonal flag. It was hard to visit her.

Driving south through West Virginia, the snow fall began. After an hour of hazardous conditions and a couple of tense moments, I arrived at her home in the mountains, the countryside blanketed in a fresh 12-inch coat of snow. The mid-March snow cover in its equanimity hid both the carcasses of last night’s roadkill and spring’s daffodil starts.

Snow White 2; Photo by Amanda K Gross

I was in denial too. My last visit had been in November and the one before that 11 months previous. My phone calls to her were becoming fewer and farther between as her memory and conversational skills began to disintegrate. Sure, I’ve had my reasons – busyness, work schedule, distance, unreliable transportation – there are always excellent reasons! But the impact remains: my not wanting to look at the painful truth of her aging has furthered her isolation.

Nannie with the Strawberries; Photo by Amanda K Gross

She was always the strong one, of the Pop & Nannie pair. Not overly warm, soft, or cuddly like my other grandma, Nannie was no-nonsense, get-to-work, and reliable in the way that shouted her love from the mountaintops. She was always so sturdy and stable – a rock and sometimes a hard place. Now her balance and mobility falter and her heart is cracking open, too.

Since I have been praying to be a truth-seeker, revelations are following me around everywhere I go.

The night of my arrival my mother somewhat matter-of-factly handed me an article during dinner. “I thought this might interest you,” she said, as I quickly skimmed the evidence that our Mast cousins who had “disappeared as Mennonite” after mid 1700 migration from Switzerland to Pennsylvania to North Carolina did indeed enslave humans and also raped them. “Kinship Concealed: Amish-Mennonite & African American Family Connections” co-written by my 12th-ish cousin, Dwight Roth who is white and by my also 12th-ish cousin, Sharon Cranford who is Black, challenges decades of Mennonite denial around our connection to and participation in slavery.*

“Sharon Cranford portrayal of the Charlie Mast legacy” article by Paul Kurtz

What an incredibly horrible and profoundly delicious fate. I chose the title Mistress Syndrome to align my white lady identity with the legacy of the mistress of the antebellum plantation because I reap the privileges (and the pain) of her legacy today whether my biological ancestors enslaved people or not. Turns out they did. In my delusion of control, I thought that I had cleverly chosen Mistress Syndrome, but clearly she chose me.

This feels like confession and I’m not even Catholic.**

WWG3 Family History Altar; Photo by Amanda K Gross

In other do-gooder narrative-shattering news, European Mennonites had an affinity for Nazism. I first learned a piece of this shushed history last year reading Ben Goossen’s article entitled “Mennonite Fascism“. But then, this week while gazing out across the snowy mountain view, I read a Facebook post from a former professor that there was enough of this history for an entire academic conference on it.  Her post shares her learnings from the conference which “feels like a betrayal of everything Mennonites are supposed to stand for…”:

“• German racial scientists used Mennonite church records and measured Mennonite noses and foreheads to prove Mennonites were “the purest Aryans”
• Some Mennonite theologians advocated for racial theology in which “morals pass through blood” and race mixing was forbidden
• Some Mennonites in Poland and Russia joined the Nazis in evicting Jews from their homes and some even participated in massacres
• Mennonite refugees sometimes were given land, homes, furniture, and clothing from Jews who had been forced into ghettos or killed
• Some Mennonites hid Jews and participated in challenging Nazi authority. At Yad Vashem in Israel, there are about 40 Dutch Mennonites who are listed as part of the Righteous of the Nations for taking risks to save Jews
• There are stories of Mennonite-Jewish mixed marriages as many Mennonites and Jews lived side by side in many European countries.
• In one case, a Mennonite woman decides to die with her Jewish husband and children rather than hiding with the Mennonite community
• Mennonite Central Committee purposefully portrayed Mennonite Nazi war criminals as refugees after the war, denying their German identity and asserting that Mennonites had their own nationality and deserved a state in Paraguay, just as Jews were creating Israel
• Some Mennonites brought these theories of racial superiority to Canada and the US. There were Mennonite Nazis in church leadership in Canada. And the white nationalist movement was started by Ben Klassen, who coined the term “racial holy war” after having grown up in a Mennonite colony in Ukraine and reading Mein Kampf there.”

It is tempting to want to remember the heroic tidbits and throw the villainous ones away. We hold all of these identities – victim, villain, and heroine – within us, at the same time.

We are living in a time of uncomfortable revelation. If we listen and absorb, it might change our lives.

Snow White; Photo by Amanda K Gross

But denial runs deep. I see it in myself and I see it in the white ladies. Like the February story link “Virginia Missionary Pleads Guilty to Widespread Sexual Abuse in Haiti” that sat unopened on my browser for weeks because I suspected he was a Virginia Mennonite Missionary (he was), like the carcasses under the snow, like the slight stench of urine that permeates my grandma’s newfound assisted life, I don’t really want to know. It is easier or habitual or a privilege to ignore it and leave the clean up to the paid help. It is easier to recite the narrative of victim and heroine, to post our chosen trauma and chosen glories*** on social media and write letters of support in order to demonstrate our righteousness. It is easier to claim the territory of anti-racism rather than take responsibility for our actions. It is easier, but is it healthier?

Confrontation is not a Mennonite value or a white liberal one. I have internalized that being in open conflict is wrong (because violence is wrong) and bad (because everyone should like me) and that superficial harmony is preferred and also rewarded with the trinkets of white womanhood. So to be confronted so specifically with a personal inheritance of Slavery, Systematic Rape, the Holocaust, Colonization, Missionary Imperialism, Systematic Rape of Children, and my Grandmother’s Decay all in one month feels overwhelming.  It is painful to feel and also sometimes I feel numb. In response, I make art and write blog posts late at night.

Collage detail by Amanda K Gross

But what keeps me (on most days) from wallowing in the quick sand of self-pity, what keeps me from ten thousand excellent reasons to turn my head, what keeps me from luxuriating in the rabbit hole of rationalized self-care is ACCOUNTABILITY. A six syllable monster of a word that is not as scary as it sounds. Actually in my experience it has been a relief.

Right beside my feeling of overwhelm and grief is the recognition of the humans at the receiving end of my bloody inheritance, the impact of which is not so neatly in the past. Knowing this keeps me grounded. Being in relationship keeps me focused. Knowing that people suffer today because of my contributions – whether current or historical – gives me an opportunity at redemption. Every breath-filled moment I have on this earth is a chance for renewal. While much of it has been written, I get to add chapters to Mistress Syndrome’s legacy every single day.

Collage detail by Amanda K Gross

I have accountability to others and I have accountability to myself. I know from experience that denial is a form of self-harm, that repressing and ignoring trauma does not make their effects go away, that running only amasses more of whatever I was running from. I confront in order to save my Self.

Collage detail by Amanda K Gross

The confusing thing that we must learn as white ladies is that our contributions lie not in the heroism (heroinism?) of the helper’s cape, but in our ability to shovel away the snow where there will certainly be both carcasses and daffodils. We must go through it. There is so much snow to shovel that it is not an individual task, but one we must go through together. The shame, the pain, the misery, the excuses, the mental illness, the greener grass, the fear of vulnerability will seek to divide us and threaten our success (it already has). But my critical realism is ultimately optimistic. It has to be.

Chickens and Krokbragd; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

*The article entitled “Sharon Cranford portrayal of the Charlie Mast legacy” was interesting in that its title left out the white co-author’s name (who is also portraying the Charlie Mast legacy) and that it was written by my great-uncle who has taken on the honored role of family historian since my great-grandfather – his father – passed.

**Catholic private confession grew in popularity at the same time as land privatization at time when the ruling class sought to undermine the social fabric and resistance of European peasants. It also made priests the middle men of community relationships and possible encouraged passive aggression and conflict avoidant behavior.

***I learned about chosen traumas and chosen glories from the Little Book of Trauma Healing and will be writing more on this theme in the upcoming book also entitled Mistress Syndrome.

 

Vulnerability Sucks Part Three: Taking Off My Clothes is Hard to Do

written by AMANDA GROSS

I’m not usually one to undress for an audience. But maybe that’s a lie, because at many points of my life I have and am increasingly practicing doing so. When I was a kid, I loved being naked like I loved being myself. Loud. Proud. In charge. Directing. Leading. Unapologetically Embodied. But at some point I developed a subtle way of toning my full fledged expression way down. A 13-year dose of the US education system is partially to blame. What with all the peer stigma that came from being a teacher’s pet or “too” smart, I remember being careful not to let my classmates see the frequent red A+s. I became understated in my achieving, quiet in my knowledgeable responses. Mennonite Humble can also be proud of this shift. A slow stew over time, the undercurrent of collective cultural values gendering more and more with age. Pride goeth before the Mennonite Humble Fall. Beware, it might even lead to dancing*.

Schoolhouse Quilt; Acrylic on Paper by Amanda K Gross

However, the strongest conditioner in hiding my truths has been silence. Silence around sex and the body and a feminized body in particular, has helped me build walls of inhibition to keep my vulnerability fully clothed. There are certain things we don’t talk about and then there are certain things that we really don’t talk about. Ever.

“Let’s not talk about sex” is the never spoken yet constantly implied mantra handed down from the staunchly puritanical fear of my maternal line while “Cake or Death” (Cake=Monogamous Lifelong Marriage) was “Let’s not talk about sex”‘s partner in child raising coming from my Biblical literalist father. Both sent clear messages to my Mennobaby ears. In their crossfire, my interpretation became “Cake or Death or Silence”. Clearly silence was the least messy – or at least easiest placeholder until the socially acceptable option of Cake came along. So silence I did.

I have always like boys. When I was trying to fall asleep at the age of 4, I would day-dream about my preschool crushes. In kindergarten during nap time instead of sleeping (I aged out of napping at age two) I would kiss boys behind their ears on the towels that we brought in from home. (This was most likely not consensual.) My towel was bright red, green, black, and yellow stripes. And Ms. Johnson once told me to stop, but I could sense the smile she was suppressing in her eyes, which told me it was mostly cute.

Fast forward to high school. After years of culminating threats (both in jest but also probably not) that I wouldn’t be allowed to date until I was thirty, I went to live in France as an exchange student and found a beau. This French affair (which actually didn’t begin to manifest until after I returned home and if I’m honest, never really manifested despite seven years of back and forths) was silence of the best kind, an ocean away. As my first real semblance of a relationship, it was both exciting and terrifying and something I absolutely needed guidance on. In fact, I now see the budding manipulation and subtle emotional abuse I fell into, how he played my insecurities like a fiddle and used a never redeemed promise to fuel emotional rollercoasters and keep me hanging on, for years. It is only now, at the age of thirty-three and seven-eighths, that I can see how almost each and every one of my romantic relationships has had similar fields of misogynist landmines: the prom date that was all in and then disappeared once I was all in too, the boyfriend who pushed my boundaries constantly for months until I was too exhausted to resist (we could call that date rape), the person I dated who lied about his other relationships, the other boyfriend who pushed my boundaries immediately (we would definitely call that date rape), and the many other exhausting relational dynamics that stem from hundreds of years of embedded White Supremacist Patriarchy. Also the confusing unwanted attention and childhood molestation from a peer at church, which helped establish the tone for all of the above. Silence bred those moments in the multiple choice world of Cake or Death. And since my life mostly hasn’t fit into any of the neatly aforementioned categories (except for that one time I chose Cake for several years), the Silence has been accompanied and held in place by shame and stigma and uncertainty and fear and isolation.

MennoFabulous 2; Acrylic and Graphite on Board by Amanda K Gross

But the hardest, most isolating parts of the Silence for me have not been connected to those moments when I was taken advantage of, but instead in those moments of decision and agency.  I remember when I was in a relationship back in college and I was deciding whether or not I wanted to be sexually intimate with this person. I went back and forth in my head for months. I journaled. I made art. All I wanted was to talk to someone about it, to get their balanced and open perspective and to get some support. But not once did I feel comfortable enough to talk to anyone. My friend group at that point had bought into the celibacy before marriage thing and my mentors had already fully disclosed their positions by teaching Sunday School classes on why masturbation was a sin. On the surface, the Silence attempts to control our physical, sexual selves, but in the deeps it serves to control our emotional and mental landscapes. In the moment I needed support in making a wise decision about what I wanted to do with my body, but ultimately the Silence subverted an opportunity to support my emotional, mental, and spiritual growth of navigating human relationships.

We know the Silence keeps cultures and systems of oppression in place. Robin di’Angelo nudged me through her work on White Silence to begin examining how my connection to the dominant racial identity of whiteness helps to maintain white supremacy. But when it comes to Patriarchy, it has been much more comfortable to claim a victim’s territory and hunker down in selective silence in an attempt to maintain a vestige of control and self-protection for what has been perceived as loss. Except, the world is intersectional and we are interconnected and my selective silence around sex has mostly been more beneficial to White Supremacist Patriarchy and its heterosexual norms than to my Self. So vulnerability sucks because I really don’t want to tell you about my sex life and intimate relationships, but it is time that I begin.

Lilith and the Whale; Acrylic on Skateboard by Amanda K Gross

One of the most disgusting things I’ve witnessed in the Mennonite Church has been the way we continuously have put people deemed as sexual outsiders or deviants (queer folks, victims of sexual assault, divorcees, really anyone not appearing to play the part of Cake or Death) on trial. The Silence doesn’t apply if you’ve been typecast as sexual outsider or deviant** in which case, we feel very comfortable, no, entitled to strip you down in front of the congregation while we debate your bodies, your sex lives, your preferences, your decisions, your ethics, and your eternal future. Meanwhile, all of the Mennonite Church’s children and grandchildren are at Mennonite Educational Institutions navigating sex and power and relationships just like their non-Mennonite peers (even sometimes with their non-Mennonite peers). For some of those grown children and grandchildren, Cake becomes an option. I have watched countless hetero couple after couple get simultaneously engaged and welcomed into the Mennonite Church with one collective sigh of relief. Whew! They’re Cake now so we can safely celebrate! We can be comfortable again because we know what they are and they are Cake. The Silence gets to remain in their past and a linear logic model means only Cake and babies in their future.

Cake – Married Not Married photo series; photo by Amanda K Gross

Except not. Cake is filled with Silence. It’s the icing that dresses a Cake up in its Sunday best. As a very recent divorcee, I now fall into the sexual outsider/deviant category in many circles, which may or may not have you dismiss my words, but I will write them anyway. Cake – it turns out – is filled with the Silence. The room in the Cake for struggle and growth and creative solutions is still limited by its design. Unhealthy, icky things still happen inside the Cake but no one talks about it. There was approved room in the Cake of my marriage for three years of couples counseling, but not for opening up a marriage. There was room in the Cake for nasty arguments and passive aggression and the exhaustion of mental illness, but not separation and making healthy choices for the individual humans in the relationship if it threatened the structure of the Cake itself. What I learned is that Cake is served nicely with a side of Silence, but not with a side of truth, if the truth challenges the Cake, or more accurately the idea of the Cake. The Cake is also an illusion.

Cake – Married Not Married photo series; photo by Amanda K Gross

When I share with people that my former partner and I are now divorced, they are usually sad and express regret. I have found it difficult to share. I have hesitated to open up – not because I am sad (although I still work through the occasional shame and embarrassment that I’ve been socialized to internalize), but because I end up consoling them.*** They are grieving for my relationship, while I am sharing a positive, healthy, life-giving, growth-affirming change. I realized that in addition to them grieving a relationship which they have in the past perhaps celebrated and supported, they are also grieving their attachment to the Cake and the illusion of it. But in so doing, they miss out on seeing the present Me and in sharing in my good news.

I love cake. There is a chocolate cake recipe that I have been baking since the age of eight. I have the recipe memorized. 2 cups flour. 2 cups sugar. 1 tsp baking powder.1/2 tsp salt. 2 tsp baking soda. 2/3 cup cocoa powder. 1 tsp vanilla. 2/3 cup oil. 1 cup milk. 2 eggs. 1 tsp vanilla. 1 cup boiling hot coffee. Bake at 350 til done. (From Mennonite Country-Style Recipes & Kitchen Secrets) This is the only recipe I follow line by line. Usually, I use recipes for inspiration and even when I’m baking I prefer to estimate and experiment rather than follow a prescribed path. Maybe that experiential baking style is partially responsible for my marriage’s transition. But maybe, the problem isn’t cake itself or my ability to bake it, but the expectation that there’s only one kind and one acceptable way. Maybe the problem isn’t just the kind of cake, but the limited (false) options of Cake or Death or Silence. Recipes are only useful if we have the ingredients they’re built on and if we want the end results.

Cake – Married Not Married photo series; photo by Amanda K Gross

I consider Alice Walker’s words often, “Take what you need and let the rest rot.” One of the things I appreciate the most about Mennonite culture is the emphasis on family and community relationships and extended interconnected networks. For many of European descent the process of assimilation into whiteness has meant forfeiting and devaluing relationships, community, and interconnectedness in exchange for material isolation, competition, and control. Like all things, with abuse of power, there’s a way this cultural dynamic can be toxic, but I am interested in the way it holds wisdom for undoing the Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy that we have come to embody today. Ways of being that center healthy relationships, interdependency, loving humane community, and human connections can be cultural guides for uprooting oppression and constructing the versatile alternatives we so desperately need so that Cake or Death or Silence crumble as our only options. I have learned the most about relationships that are based on consent, mutual respect, and accountability from those humans historically most marginalized by the church. Turns out centering leadership of the oppressed, which also happens to be the crux of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, is not just a Biblical thing to do, but also an effective way forward through the messy violence and trauma we do to each other. Maybe that’s why it’s a Biblical thing to do…

Cake – Married Not Married photo series; photo by Amanda K Gross

In order to decenter Cake or Death or Silence, vulnerability is required from those in power. We have a violent history of forced vulnerability onto those most marginalized by institutional and cultural power. But shared vulnerability puts the onus back on those who have access to the power and positions of oppression calling us back into our humanity. It is the model of restorative justice that Mennonites have learned from indigenous peoples. Our statuses and relationships to these systems of oppression are not fixed, but overlapping, intersectional, and dynamic. And as a mistress, an interloper with access to the master’s ear, who is eating at the master’s tables, and sleeping in his bedrooms, there are a plethora of platforms at my disposal to aid in the demise of Cake or Death or Silence. Speaking (or writing) truthfully with vulnerability is one such power tool.

May we continue to hone our skills, our truths, and our tools.

“The sky is falling!” thought Henny Penny. “No, wait, it’s all in my mind.” #YogaTales; Acrylic on paper by Amanda K Gross

*Mennonites are terrified of dancing because of its slippery slope towards having sex. So there’s a joke: Beware of having sex, it could lead to dancing!

**Divorcees still fit this category in many Mennonite circles.

***Prescience by someone who had been through this experience decades ago. Thank you for the wisdom.

Vulnerability Sucks Part Two: The Big House

WRITTEN BY Amanda Gross

What does it mean to be a white lady who co-owns a home with a white man and have tenants of color as housemates? Is it even possible not to play out the historic roles that are our legacies? When Black women pay me to live in the Big House can there be reciprocity? Justice? Accountability? Love? Is it possible for the place to be a Home and not on some level the Big House? The tone of our relationships that have been predetermined deep within our DNA, our beliefs, our perceptions, our actions, our choices made without our consent before and yet we make the choices still now and in our day to day we choose for the future. Time is not as linear as whiteness has us believe.

As a walking micro aggression, it is inevitable that in this dynamic I will do harm. I know this. I wrote this. And still my accepting it is half the battle. The patterns that come up for me internally (and often squirm their way out externally, much to my chagrin) are bent on maintaining my denial and my own self image of good, of sweet, of not intending to and not doing harm.

Good White Lady Number One

Good White Lady Number One

There are layers, which makes it seem complicated, but it’s really not. The layers appear and reappear, some take priority in certain moments and then in my laziness or exhaustion or wanting to get it right I leave one unattended and BAM! it demands my attention (again). This is where I am.

Trying to live in anti-racist ways in a mixed race household is in many ways a set up. Material resources are, have been, and continue to be unevenly distributed. And any giving or generosity on my part is still very much on my terms. The decision-making power, the resources, the options lie with me. Even to get to a point where this would not be the case, the privilege the power to give and to take away lies with me. I can be accountable (and I am trying). I can be committed (and I am). But at the end of the day the contradiction lives on in the porous walls of the basement. It is in the foundation even though we have set up rain barrels to keep the toxic mold at bay.

Denial Sleeps Beauty

Denial Sleeps Beauty by Amanda K Gross

And then there is the matter of clarity. Who has the clarity, the wisdom, the experience to lead us out of this racist mind-fuckery? The exponential double burden of saving our collective souls falls again on the backs of those most impacted. In admiration I hesitate to put this superhuman undertaking, this beyond human feat on anyone and so I try to keep my dependency in check. I try to stand strong on my own. I try to push back the voices of doubt and worthlessness that creep in through my blondish brown ponytail and into the back of my mind. My grandmother’s voice argues with the self-doubt. “You must know,” she says pragmatically. And I do and I don’t. I know enough to know that I don’t know. I really don’t know.

For a long time my go-to strategy for not knowing has been hiding. This strategy has some merit. I approach new places, people, cultures with a listening regard. I enter as a guest. I tread lightly. I observe and watch to learn. But there always comes a point, when something does not fit quite right, something inside of me needs to express herself, something is happening and it’s making me uncomfortable. For a long time my strategy has been to push that down and accommodate the difference, to subsume myself out of respect, to be the best guest possible (Side note, there are no gold stars for this either). The goal for me is to emerge from the binary of host or guest. To no longer be a guest in my own life means vulnerability, as does no longer being the host. I have been positioned to host, a guest in host’s clothing. This land does not belong to me.

No Words Detail 2 by Amanda K Gross

No Words Detail 2 by Amanda K Gross

Now I am trying to let more of myself through. Enter Vulnerability in all its sucking glory. Before I didn’t let the bad and ugly out (or at least I thought I didn’t). I pretty successfully kept the bad and ugly in until I was in a “safe” zone, where I could unleash the bad and ugly, usually on myself, but sometimes on my little brother or other conveniently located white men. Because then, at least I wouldn’t be harming someone who already gets it from every angle of the system. (See what a good white lady I have been!) Of course my safe zones as a white lady are much more extensive in this world than for People of Color, which is why I have had to learn and am still learning that Home is sanctuary.

Now that I am letting more of the bad and ugly through, waiting for me on the other side are all sorts of juicy lessons about the incredible extent of my impact on those living in closest proximity. I don’t know what I don’t know until I really do. Ultimately, I am grateful for the education, for the courage and energy it takes to tell me how I was harmful. The education is priceless and yet it has a cost. I am trying not to be dependent, and we are so interdependent, both the inhuman arrangement and our connected humanity were designed this way.

And then occasionally I do actually know, because my deep down Self has been trying to teach me too, if only I would listen, give heed, and surrender to Her. Like just this week, when I refused to have compassion for myself after some very difficult and intense conversations. Instead of honoring the voice inside that kept urging me to cancel my next conversations and give myself alone time to process a storm of emotions, I pushed through. I have so internalized a sense of superiority that I refuse even to yield to me, to my own fragile humanity. And what came out the other end jeopardized relationship and did real harm. There are consequences for my not making the slightest change in that moment just as there are consequences to not choosing vulnerability and consequences to choosing vulnerability .

We are trying not to repeat the pattern of slave and mistress when Mistress Syndrome is in the House. Stay tuned.

No Words by Amanda K Gross

No Words by Amanda K Gross

Vulnerability Sucks Part One: No Gold Stars

WRITTEN BY Amanda Gross

Don’t believe what they tell you about vulnerability.

Vulnerability is not all rainbows and butterflies and puppy dogs and rain drops on roses. Vulnerability sucks. It is miserable. It is painful.

Recently (as in over the past 18 months) Brené Brown’s name keeps coming up. Have you seen her Ted Talk? they say. Have you read her books? Isn’t her work on courage and vulnerability amazing? Eye-opening? Brilliant?

Gratitude 2 by Amanda K Gross

Gratitude 2 by Amanda K Gross

I watch the Ted Talk. Why, yes it is all of those things. She honestly and with confidence and humor throws down like a white lady about how courage is whole-heartedness, running with open arms towards the unknown, embracing the life lessons and living to the fullest in ways that people who hold back won’t, can’t ever know. She shares that living in that way is where worthiness and resiliency come from. When I heard her Ted Talk for the first 3 times I left feeling positive, encouraged, inspired to live whole-heartedly, to run towards the love/pain/relationships/experiences with my arms wide open and my heart exposed. I interpreted it as both affirmation and confirmation that I was on the right path of choosing vulnerability. Life is hard, but hard is necessary to develop my self-worth. (Her fabulous talk is way more complex than this above paragraph. I highly recommend watching it for yourself.)

In my eagerness to embrace these challenges, I missed something in the fine print.

What my most recent life lessons have shown, is that vulnerability is less like running arms wide open towards the unknown, and more like running with arms wide open towards a meat grinder. You will be shredded to pieces and then reformed over and over again. And it is no picnic. Or maybe it is a picnic in the middle of a rain storm on a cold early April day in a very gray city with poor air quality.

As I strip off the layers of protective gear to expose it all – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and in relationship offer it all up to other human beings, the clincher is that the other human beings get to decide to accept or reject it all. It’s not even a one-off toe stub, it’s chronic pain in and out, a constant as long as the relationship lasts and the ripple effect even after it’s over. The deeper the relationship, the more ugly is exposed and the less I can deceive myself about how much of life is under my control. (An illusion I was fed daily in the forms of three square meals, gold stars, good grades, and board games.)

Last week I went home to Atlanta* to reconcile with my past (as if reconciling is a one-off toe stub and not a life-long endeavor). I went home to avoid avoidance and find some sort of balance between the urge to run away from my father kicking and screaming rejecting his right-wing conservative Christian Trump-victorious fixedness and the other urge to fling myself whole-heartedly on the altar of martyred righteousness and exhaustion.

Gratitude 1 by Amanda K Gross

Gratitude 1 by Amanda K Gross

What transpired was both the same and different. In many ways we had the same conversation we’ve always had, the same stand-off with worldviews that won’t coexist, the same pain, the same heart-yearning for relationship and the same stubborn self-preservation. But this time I saw something new.

Honesty and integrity reappear as themes in my paternal lineage. My dad touted these virtues at his dad’s funeral. There are allowances for crudeness, being tactless, blunt, cold, and inconsiderate as long as you are honest. I even made the mistake of claiming this honesty trait for myself once and ever since the Universe has held up her piercing mirror so that I could see for myself if that is indeed the case.

And even though there is a level of dishonesty in the form of denial permeating my father’s cognitive dissonance, I heard his truth clearer than ever before. He was brutally honest in his allegiance to whiteness. He put the good, the bad, and the ugly unapolegetically on display. He did not mince words in saying what his worldview was and in saying that he isn’t (ever) willing to change or challenge it. The only relationship that matters to him and the one that subsumes every single other one – including the one with me – is his relationship with Jesus. He knows he is flawed, yet he will not be moved, not by his heart and certainly not by me.

In this unexpected plot twist, he is actually modeling for me the very vulnerability I say I’m striving for. He is honest in who he is. He knows it and he shows it and he is consistent with his desire to stay on top as a white man, to maintain this power and illusion of power at all costs. Take him or leave him. It made me think of the U.S. presidency. The beauty of Trump is the full exposure of ugliness so that it is also not separate from our own ugliness. It is our ugliness. It is my ugliness, exposed. What does the Trump inside of me look like? Many of the things that piss me off about my dad are personality traits that we have in common.**

Gratitude 3 by Amanda K Gross

Gratitude 3 by Amanda K Gross

Turns out there are no gold stars or A+s at the end of the rainbow. And – this is a lesson I haven’t fully learned yet – trying harder to do better does not necessarily result in doing better or even doing differently. (Again I attribute this to gold stars, good grades, and board games.) Baring one’s own vulnerability does not necessarily roll out the welcome mat of acceptance.

Except maybe of one’s Self.

 

 

*A shoutout to my sister for accompanying me and helping to balance out the hard conversations by teaching me how to enjoy life anyway.

 

**Whiteness has always been used to buy off the masses. Our denial flows even as the stark ugliness is revealed (over and over again). As long as Trump was a candidate, we could seek solace by being his opposition. We knew we were different and better because we weren’t him. But the hard truth is that Trump is and always has been within each of us who have come to be called white. Accepting that reality with courage and seeking is a powerful place to start to stand for your own and our own collective freedom. Accepting that reality is confronting fear and triumphing in a greater love.