Warsan Shire

A World in Pain

On Friday the 13th of November, terrorists coordinated attacks on Paris that consisted of mass shootings, hostage taking, and suicide bombing. When the dust settled, 129 people were dead and 415 were wounded.

ISIL is claiming responsibility for the Paris attacks in the wake of attacks made by France on targets in Syria as part of Opération Chammal, a French military operation that has been ongoing since September of 2014. And France is responding to their declaration as an act of war. On November 15th, France sent 12 planes to drop 20 bombs on ISIL training camps and ammunition facilities in Raqqa in the single largest air strike of Opération Chammal so far.

I followed the explosion on Twitter as everything unfolded on Friday night. I watched people sending out messages saying that they were OK. I watched the inevitable unfurling of racist tongues lashing out to speak hate against groups they felt justified in maligning.

The next day, I watched people speaking out against the violence that has been happening in other areas of the world. Violence in Syria, Beirut, Baghdad, and elsewhere that goes unremarked.

Like a lot of other people, my mind went back to the only substantive moment of terror that most Americans can remember. September 11, 2001.

The actual circumstances of where I was and what I felt and thought while it was happening don’t matter. What matters is the fallout. The aftermath.

In the days and weeks that followed the terrorist attacks on American soil, America did what it does best when it feels directly threatened: It fought back. And we the people saw paraded in front of us a veritable parade of reasons for fighting. A parade of images of the people who had harmed us and who rightly deserved our hatred.

When I look back at that time, I remember to my shame how I locked step with the rest of the country and hated a whole group of people without discrimination. I was 17. I focused my hate along with the rest of the country, impotent as it may have been.

I was so, so wrong. And even a year later, if you had asked me what my thoughts on the Middle East were, my answers would have been so, so different.

Before we even had a death toll on the attacks in Paris, people were taking to the internet and calling for the blood of the “Islamic State” without having the first idea of the implications of what they were saying.

It’s so easy to turn to a place of absolute hatred when things like these happen. And I think it’s especially easy for developed, western countries to flip a switch and go to a terrible and hateful place. But ask yourself this before you give in to that feeling.

We experience attacks like this very rarely. When you feel that hatred well up inside yourself, pause and think. Imagine what it would be like if we experienced an attack like this every year. Every month. Imagine experiencing something like this every day. Imagine the fear, the terror, the hopelessness that would come from experiencing something like that. And then realize that what you are imagining could not possibly compare to the reality of living under those circumstances.

So when you feel like the pain is too much and the world is too scary a place. When you feel that hatred well up in you, try reaching out with compassion to areas of the world that experience terror and violence every day. Turn your pain and your anger into love and empathy and compassion. Make a donation. Volunteer to help refugees in your area. Write your elected representatives and ask them to speak out for the rights of people fleeing violence.

As hard as it is, that love is the only way that I can see out of the horror that threatens to overtake us in those dark moments.

As an atheist, that love and compassion is the closest I can come to an offering of prayer.

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Some thoughts on the day after Veteran’s Day

I spent yesterday watching people’s Veteran’s Day messages fly past me in a flurry on social media. Veteran friends changed their profile pictures to display themselves in uniform. Some of them goofy, some of them serious. People posted photos of relatives that have been lost in the line of duty and photos of generations past who have served in the military.

I’m from a military family. We have served in every war since we landed in this country in the early 1900s. My family photo albums are full of men in uniform. Mostly army, although my father is a formerly active Marine.

Growing up, I had a lot of good feelings about the military. And I still do. I think that there is something to be said for the type of bonding that happens when you are a part of a group like the military. And I think that America in particular is a country in which families like mine are not the exception, but the rule in terms of military service.

The problem with growing up, though, is that it tends to complicate any bucolic feelings you may have had about the things that surrounded you growing up.

I have known a lot of veterans in my time. The first one was, obviously, my father. He enlisted in the Marines when he was young. He wanted to serve his country over in Vietnam. The second veteran that I knew was my uncle Paul. He was the youngest boy in my mother’s family. Unlike my father, he actually was sent overseas to Vietnam to fight. He came back to a country who hated him and a VA that did not treat him for the PTSD that he suffered from due to his time spent overseas. He came home to no job, no prospects, and nursing a crippling heroin addiction that would follow him for the rest of his life, leading to the loss of his leg and his eventual death due to overdose in 2005 when I was 21.

Since my uncle died, I have known many other veterans. I have seen them begging for money here in Philadelphia. I have become friends with them. I have listened to them talk about their time spent overseas fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan or Korea or even Vietnam. And I have heard them when they have talked about the way they have been treated when they have come home. The way they have been reviled by the general public. Disregarded by Congress. And underserved by the VA.

The United States of America has been at war in one country or another since 1779. That’s 236 years of conflict. 236 years of soldiers fighting and dying in service to their country. I hold those soldiers in my heart and have the utmost respect for their service and sacrifice. I salute every single one of them. And I am grateful to their families who have to give up so much when they give up their soldiers to fight.

But I have a serious problem with a country where we have nearly spent two and a half centuries at war. I have a serious problem with the leaders of a country that vote consistently against legislation that is designed to help our veterans when they return home. I find it shocking that the rate of veteran suicide is so high that we have organizations dedicated to stopping it. That rate is so high because the people that we send away to fight our endless wars for us do not have the support necessary when they return to deal with issues effecting their mental health.

So while I support wholeheartedly the people fighting for our country, I cannot support the warmongering of the country that they represent. And I cannot sanction or abide the pattern of neglect that I have seen enacted throughout my entire life when it comes to veterans health.

Happy Veteran’s Day. Let’s do better for the people we call on to make the highest sacrifice imaginable when called to serve.


Featured image is by Martha Rosler and is entitled Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful – First Lady Pat Nixon (1972).

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Living with Dementia

Yesterday my mother and father went to my grandmother’s house to take her car away from her.

She already had her license suspended because of her dementia. But she refused to give up the car. Mostly because, although she promised she wouldn’t, she was still driving it.

On Tuesday my parents got a call from the Bensalem Police Department. Mommom had been parked outside of a barber shop. She said her car had broken down. She couldn’t remember where she was going. And she had to be pressed to give the police my mother’s number.

I suspect she was ashamed.

When they towed her car away, they found that there was nothing wrong with it, mechanically. I think she was just lost and scared. And she knew that, if they towed her car, they would take her home.

Dementia must be terrifying. And a lot of the things that go along with it – mood swings, irritability, argumentativeness – are symptoms of that terror.

Looking back on it, my grandmother has been showing signs of dementia for many years now. This diagnosis comes at a time when she has already been struggling with this for more than a decade.

When I was growing up I lived directly around the corner from my grandmother. She would walk around and watch us when my parents needed her to. She was always there. Always available.

She used to drive us places. On one memorable occasion, she drove away from her apartment with my brother and I in the car and made a left hand turn onto Levick street. The problem with that is that Levick is a one-way street and this put us in opposition to the flow of traffic. I shouted at her that she was going the wrong way and she turned into a driveway as the light turned green at the nearest intersection and cars started streaming at us.

She assured me that she was just doing that to get to the alleyway as a sort of short cut. But I think she genuinely forgot that the road was only one way, despite having lived there for 10 years at that point.

Things have gotten far worse since then. As I said, her license was suspended not that long ago. She has had minor accidents and forgotten about them. She has gotten lost for hours driving to places that are less than 5 minutes away. When you talk to her, she tries to follow the conversation but gets confused easily. She calls me by my aunt’s and mother’s names frequently.

Watching my grandmother go through this process and watching my mother attempt to ensure her continued safety and health has been really difficult in a lot of ways. First, it has been really hard to see my grandmother degenerate like this. Her pain, fear, and confusion are almost palpable when you are in the room with her. I try to keep all of our conversations light and make her laugh, but there is only so much you can do sometimes. There is also an element of fear in watching her illness progress. In wondering what that process will be like if I ever go through it. The idea gives me chills.

But the hardest part of all of this has been watching my mother struggle with the systems – or lack thereof – put in place to deal with an aging relative who has been diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s. The Alzheimer’s Association has been helpful in understanding what my grandmother has been going through. But the actual process of dealing with this has been a nightmare. From getting her license revoked to finding housing and resources and working on guardianship status for my mom, it’s all been really hard. And the entire time we have all been worried that, while this is all going on, Mommom will hurt herself or someone else in the process and it will all be for naught.

With this latest bump, the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging has gotten involved, which is great. They have programs that will have someone come to the house and clean and cook for her or even run her to doctor’s appointments and such.

What really needs to happen is that she needs to go into a home. I know that she will be happier there. She spends so much time worrying about getting things accomplished in her little apartment. I know the anxiety gets to her.

When they went to take the car from her yesterday, my dad told her that they had to take it or the cops would impound it, which was a white lie in a lot of ways. But it worked. And afterward they installed her air conditioner and fixed her phone and her cable. She called mom later to thank her and mom said that she already sounds more relaxed, even relieved.

I genuinely believe that she could live a long and comfortable life in a home of some kind. If she keeps living on her own, she is going to worry herself into an early grave.

So cross your fingers for an opening in one of the homes where we have applications. I just want to see her happy and safe.

http://chaoslife.findchaos.com/homo-hint

Lesbian Impostor Syndrome

Let me tell you a story.

When I was 13 I was in love. I did that young lesbian thing where I fell for my straight best friend. The first few weeks of 7th grade I followed her around the field where we had recess like a lost puppy. When she finally caved and decided to be friends with me, I was over the moon.

I loved everything about her. Her long blond hair, her taste in books and movies. We watched The Breakfast Club one night in my parents living room after everyone had gone to sleep, sitting close to it with the volume turned down because it was a movie we had heard was dirty. I laid across her bed in her room and listened to her play Pachelbel’s Canon on her flute.

Sometime in the midst of high school, we stopped being best friends. She started hanging out with a different crowd. I didn’t identify what I had with her as full-on “pangs of despised love” until my senior year.

In the interim, I fell head over heels for a girl the year ahead of me. She looked like Delirium from Sandman. Or Tori Amos. I memorized her poetry and read it back to her in the lunch room on one knee. We visited cemeteries like the goth wandering children that we were. We kissed one day under a gas lantern because she told me that was the ideal way to start a romance.

We dated briefly. They figured out that they were trans during our time together. I spoiled the relationship in my confusion in dealing with the totally new concept and how it related to me and to this person that I loved. That is something that I deeply regret.

Throughout this entire period, I had boyfriends who were far more serious on paper than my relationships with these women. I was an emotional chameleon. I poured myself into the molds they had for me. The perfect girlfriend. Compromising. Understanding. Patient.

My relationships always ended the same way. One big fight during which all of my bitterness at having been The Thing They Wanted but not Who I Was would come flooding to the surface.

After the breakup, I would head out on a bender that would usually end with me in a different stupid relationship. It would usually middle out with me in the arms of some beautiful girl, though. I would feel comforted and safe. But also like an impostor. My relationships with women always felt like oases in the desert. Beautiful and cool and uncomplicated.

But I worried that they were just escapism. I associated relationships with the strife inherent in making myself seem like something that I wasn’t.

After my last relationship with a man, I was so lost that I couldn’t even begin to enter into another one. I stayed single for a while.

Then I started dating Frankie.

One night, in the middle of summer, not long after we started dating, I had an ugly thought.

I’m so happy. This feels so right. Holy shit… have I always been gay?

Frankie was super nice about the fact that she’d already figured that out. She gave me ice cream. And I settled in for the process of figuring out how exactly to be myself with this new information.

It turns out, it wasn’t that different from what I was doing before.

It turns out, the only real difference was that my life was more healthy and functional than it had ever been.

I spent the majority of my life up until two years ago feeling like some kind of impostor. Like I was doing something wrong by feeling comfortable and safe with the women in my life.

Impostor syndrome is a real thing. Amanda Palmer calls it the Fraud Police. The idea being that someone at some point is going to jump out of the shadows, flash some kind of badge at you, and drag you off to Fraud Jail. You will, thereafter, stand accused of Not Knowing What You’re Doing. And there will be Consequences.

Impostor syndrome is dangerous. It’s the sound of your own voice in your head telling you lies.

You aren’t really [insert thing that you are]. 

You’re fooling yourself. You’re fooling everyone.

One day everyone is going to see you for what you really are. And then they’ll humiliate you.

The tragic thing about impostor syndrome is that it is so often the people who are the most qualified or genuine who feel as though they are somehow pulling the wool over the eyes of those around them. There are so many people out there who are 100% assured that they are The Best when they are really The Worst. I wish those people had crippling self-doubt hammered into them by their own brains. They deserve it.

So listen, qualified and brilliant and genuine readers, because I’m going to tell you something.

The Fraud Police do not exist.

You, my friend, are qualified. You are worthy of the distinctions heaped upon you. You are worthy of your career and your position in life. You are probably even worthy of more than you tell yourself you can achieve.

Fuck the fraud police. You’re awesome. And so am I.

I’m also suuuuuuuuper gay. Thanks for keeping me from that discovery for 14 years, Fraud Police. You badge-flashing imaginary pains in the ass.


Featured image from the lovely people over at Chaos Life.

Bullying is Bullshit

I went to seven grade schools.

Kindergarten was basically normal. I fingerpainted. My best friend was in the class with me. I remember making paper feathers for a hat at Thanksgiving. It was uncomplicated.

My first grade teacher was evil. We found out later that she wasn’t even qualified to be a teacher. She put children in closets. Including me. She punished you for squirming. I kicked my first boy in the crotch. He would confide in me when we were both 18 that he still possessed a scar. I would tell him that the scar was a lesson that you should listen to girls when they tell you to let them go or leave them alone. Mom moved me because the environment there was so toxic.

I don’t remember much of second grade. I think that it was fine, though. I was bullied, but I don’t remember to what extent. It must have been bad, because Mom moved me to a local Baptist school.

Third grade was the best grade. I was not being bullied. My best friend was in my class. My teacher was red-haired and beautiful. She brought us back cheese from Wisconsin. Someone in the class cut themselves on safety scissors. It was the first time that I had seen blood in that amount. They went home in an ambulance.

In forth grade my teacher was also a Civil War reenactor like my dad. I accidentally told her that I loved her one night when leaving the Civil War museum. She was kind. And warm. And nurturing. Like a favorite aunt. I really did love her.

My best friend left my school in fifth grade. Suddenly the bullying was too much to bear. Girls in my class telling me that I could be the servant when we played princesses on Church days because my dresses were not as nice as theirs… suddenly stung. And my old retreat between a building and a wire fence where I would pretend to be a pilot, sketching out drawings in chalk on the stone and pressing buttons that would take me to Where They Were Not, was profoundly isolating without a co-pilot. My mother elected to move my brother and I to home schooling.

Sixth and seventh grade were spent at home. My dad was my history teacher. I spent hours with my mom out in the woods learning the names of trees and rocks and rivers. I poured over Civil War era maps with my father. I had a few friends from local home schooling groups. One of them had a deer named Dawn who lived in her back yard and would gently take offered grain from my hand. Most of the home schooling groups were fundamentalist Christians, however, and I grew tired quickly of having them tell me that my family was going to Hell. Additionally, I had a hard time adjusting to the idea of my mother as a teacher and respecting her as such. So the decision was made to send me back to school. I did not pass the entrance test for eighth grade, however.

The second go of seventh grade was more difficult than school had been to that point. I was close enough to walk home, but my bully followed me. She whispered death threats in my ear in class and followed me home until, one day, terrified, I threw a metal trash can at her face and ran. After a quarter of the year had gone by, my mother was fed up and I was terrified. The Principle told my mother than I could deal with the problem or get out. We got out.

Seventh grade part three was easier. I was not afraid of what passed for a bully in the new school. She tried to push me down the hill at lunch. I stood stock still and laughed. She made fun of my pads and the boys joined in, so I threw them at the crowd of shrinking boys and they scattered like schools of fish before me. I felt the flavor of future power as I laughed off her pale attempts at playground butchery.

In eighth grade I had a new best friend. I was a little in love with her. I had followed her around the playground and begged her to be my friend. Eventually she would come on vacations with me and my family. I was so grateful to have a friend. And she was so lovely.

In high school my fifth grade bully would find me, now a grade ahead of me because of my having repeated seventh grade. She asked me if she could be my “big sister” and show me the ropes.

I threw my head back and I laughed.