lovers in a dangerous time

I know introductions seem to be the thing, but I’m going to jump in with both feet first and we’ll go from there.  I’m Little Light, I blog here, and I’ve been a Feministe guest blogger before.  Most of you know who I am.

What I do is preach.  I wrap that preaching up in other things, but I will be the first to admit that sermons are sort of what I do.  So let’s cut to the chase, shall we?

I’m going to start my stint at Feministe by admitting something we’re not supposed to–as Empowered Women, or whatever it is in a movement like this, and especially as a woman of color in social justice work, but I don’t think anyone’s supposed to admit this:

I am not doing so hot right now.  I’m burnt out.  I’m tired and I’m scared and I’m hurting.  I’m disillusioned with online activism and it’s been so long since I posted in my actual blog–the one where it seems like every time I post, I get set on and taken apart by people who don’t respect my basic personhood and want me to know it–that last week I got a comment from a reader who thought I was dead in a ditch somewhere.

That looks like a statement of weakness, doesn’t it, to a lot of us?  That’s like saying, hey, everyone, I’m super vulnerable right now, and here’s my wallet, not in the face, please.  It’s like inviting everyone to know you’re right there and you can be hurt.  There are a lot of good reasons we avoid admitting vulnerability.  Most of us have been stomped somewhere, sometime.  Most of us, along some axis or another if not many intersecting axes, have felt the sting of oppression–most people in a social justice movement like feminism, anyway, or they wouldn’t feel the need to care.  Most of us have seen someone take advantage of that vulnerability.  We have been taught over and over again to hide it, to not show our weak spots, to hide when we’re sick or bleeding and not let anyone know lest we be devoured.  Whatever you are, don’t be vulnerable.  Don’t tell them you’re scared.  Don’t tell them there’s places to hurt you.  At best, you’re not just being fatally foolish, you’re being weak.  Whiny.  Clearly you’re expecting someone else to clean up your mess, or otherwise infantilize you.  You’re letting everyone down:  family, friends, the however-you-define it movement, yourself.  It’s, in many cultures, mine included, filthy like sin to admit your human limits and soft places.

What I am suggesting is that vulnerability is more than that:  vulnerability is strength.  Vulnerability is radical.  And radicalizing vulnerability is vital.

It is vulnerable to connect with people intimately, and in the way that is necessary to build a better world in a lasting way.  It is terrifying, and it is often hurtful, and it is very often sad.  I have poured my heart and soul into organizations and projects that I threw myself open to, only to find them going up in a storm of flames and yelling, and pretending that doesn’t hurt is just nonsensical.  How does pretending that vulnerability away make that stop?  How does it help me do things better the next time?  What’s so dirty about admitting disappointment or grief?  I can’t think of anywhere I’m more vulnerable than the one place I’m safest:  at home, with my partner, the person I trust most in the world.  The person who can hurt me more than anyone.  There is nowhere I would rather be than with this person to whom I am laid open, who knows everything about me and knows exactly where to put the knife if she were so inclined.  She is, of course, not so inclined, but that was a risk I had to take, and sharing that risk is something transcendent.  Those of you in relationships, especially really intimate ones, back me up here:  that’s one of the most miraculous things about love.  When you open yourself to loving someone and being loved, that’s one of the most frightening, unsafe things in the world.  That’s part of what makes it so exhilarating.  That’s part of what makes it so powerful.

It’s right there in that word:  compassion.  Co-passion. Shared suffering.  If you open yourself to others, if you allow yourself to care about what happens to them, to struggle with them and fight with them and build with them, you have opened yourself.  If you spend the whole time acting tough, it won’t work.  You won’t connect.  Your struggle, even if it’s “for” them, will end up being all about you and what you think other people need and want and how it will affect your career and your moment and your fifteen minutes of…well, what was it exactly?  Are we doing this “feminism” thing for our careers, to make a buck and get our faces on TV?  Are we doing this to be officially Great?  Or are we doing something about compassion, community, and shared struggle that works for all of us and isn’t for the most part glamorous?  Those connections and sacrifices aren’t easy, and neither is the courage necessary to care about each other and work together.

Vulnerability is radical, and without sharing our vulnerability, without getting all the cards on the table, I just don’t believe we can move forward together–not just as individuals getting ours and getting out, but together.  Rather than introduce myself, I’m going to show you where you can hurt me.

I am tired.  I don’t sleep enough.  I spend too much time and energy on a job that doesn’t fulfill me and not enough pursuing my genuine aspirations.  I have ugly feelings about who I see in a mirror every day.  I miss people who were never good for me.  Ever since a severe illness a couple of years back, my body has been totally shot–it doesn’t do the things I expect of it, forces me into accepting new limits, hurts.  I am struggling hard with posttraumatic stress that leaves me, many days, shaking and unable to leave the house, bursting into tears at sudden noises, waking up from nightmares that make me want to run and throw up.  Sometimes it barely affects my day and sometimes some little thing like a stray comment or a coworker handing me some paperwork from behind will get me shuddering and hyperventilating.  It makes me exhausted and angry and frustrated and I want it to go away, but it won’t, so I’m working with it instead.  I am dealing with a lot of grief right now, having lost a lot of important people in my life just as I’m planning a wedding, and for a while I insisted that it was fine, I was fine, but it’s not and I’m not.  It gets to me.  It should get to me.  I am afraid–of more loss, of losing the people and chosen family I’m open to now, of an unjust world becoming more unjust.  I should be.

See, I can refuse to admit vulnerability, but that won’t make me not vulnerable.  There is nothing that can do that, not even covering myself up with layers and layers of the armor we all use to get through the day and pretending away the ugly things and the hard parts of my history and everyone else’s.  This isn’t about complaining.  I’m just stating facts that are, yes, relevant to who I am, why I participate in feminism and the greater movement toward social justice, why and how and what I write and contribute.  Pretending it isn’t so forces me into a strange and inhuman position where we just posture at each other.  You’re not vulnerable, I’m not vulnerable, let’s have an abstract debate about theories, and hey, justify your feelings, and hey, little lady, the grownups are talking and why are you so upset and come back, we were just having a friendly little debate about ideas, and what do you mean this is real life for you?

Social justice is about theories and ideas underpinning our actions, but if those theories and ideas are to mean anything, they have to be grounded in our real lives.  They have to pay attention to what happens to us, and what can hurt us, and why some things–like a seemingly-innocent comment, like a sudden noise, like a bigoted slur, like making it through a day of work or classes when the only thing in your head is the rape you may never be over or how you’re going to be able to feed your children this month or when the water is getting shut off or just that thing your parents said that will never stop eating at you–affect some of us more than others.  A functional movement isn’t one like the one we have, where people burn out and drop out and vanish because it’s all too much and they aren’t being supported and they just can’t take it any more, where everything we do is met with all of us tearing each other apart and always always always going for the throat until we stop being people to each other and start being…adversaries?  interlocutors?  enemies?  objects?  Have you noticed who suffers when we build a movement premised on never admitting that we can hurt each other, on never admitting that we’re tired and limited and human and just aren’t up for it today?  Who stops making blog posts, who stops showing up to meetings and town halls and community projects, stops putting their work out there and speaking openly and honestly?  Who stops making friends?  Who stops taking risks?  Have you noticed what happens in a world where we do this?  Where we never talk about what we need, let alone what we want, all while we’re told all day what we should buy instead?

We fight an impossible battle against troubles we don’t even admit exist.  We focus on enemies, and neglect ourselves and our loved ones, lose track of what we’re for in a storm of obsession with what we’re against.  We don’t let it get to us, until it does.  And then we go down in flames and everyone has to start over.

Can we do something different, start from different premises?  Like:  I’m hurting right now.  Like:  I can’t do everything.  Like:  I get tired and hungry and scared and confused.  Like:  I’m grieving.  Like:  I’m human, and human beings are vulnerable, and I can be hurt, and I can hurt others.  Like:  if we’re all going to make it, we have to do this together, and that means being vulnerable, and we can either choose to avert our eyes from that fact or we can embrace it and build something more compassionate, more functional, that makes our lives different for the better.

Like:  let’s let vulnerability be radical.  Let’s embrace it.  Let’s admit that even the best things in the world are unsafe and go into it with open eyes and held hands.

We can choose make it work, or we can choose not to.  I am going to spend my two weeks here choosing to try to be as vulnerable with you all as I possibly can, and maybe some of you will feel more able to be vulnerable, too.  A dear friend told me once that writing is like getting up in front of people, pulling open your ribcage, and saying, here are my organs.  I hope you like them.

Here are my organs.  I hope you like them.  I hope for the next little while we can try something dangerous and new, and I hope that you won’t take advantage of it in the wrong ways, because yes, I’m vulnerable.  So are you.  And we have a lot of work to do.

Let’s get cracking.

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26 comments for “lovers in a dangerous time

  1. mama mia
    September 15, 2009 at 12:28 am

    Oh, friend, we live such different lives, and yet, and yet…

  2. September 15, 2009 at 12:45 am

    I don’t comment much, but ‘m glad to see you guess posting here again.

    Ah hell, I’m just glad to see a post from you :D

    The most radical of all acts is to be true, at all times, in all ways. In the spare moments and the momentous occasions.

    Part of being true is to be willing to show your vulnerability, your weaknesses, your chinks in your armor. In the old words, Know Thyself, and to know thyself you must the bad parts and the good parts, the strong parts and the weak parts, the hurt parts and the healed ones.

    I revel in the whole of who I am, and right now, like you, that wholeness isn’t quite right — call it a lack of balance or a lost ability to encompass stress or maybe just not wanting to face a set of challenges that seem so horribly overwhelming all the time.

    In my case, I’m running away from it all for a little while, to recharge batteries and not worry about the little things so much for a bit, content to live in that brief moment of whim without care or concern.

    ITs good to know that as I start, I can look forward to reading you again.

  3. Raksha
    September 15, 2009 at 2:57 am

    Wow, this was one hell of a post! I think I’m going to forward it to, like, everyone I was ever so much as introduced to in grad school!

    What you said here really spoke to me because I’ve been struggling with a lot of these things myself. So have many of my friends. I have a Master’s Degree in Women’s Studies from OSU. It’s a very good program at a very good university, and yet my friends an I almost all came away from it burned out, hopeless, depressed and defeated. I feel as if every shred of passion, joy, inspiration, and hope I once had, all my fire to fight sexism, racism, classism, and any other -ism I could find has been systematically ripped away. I finished school in early 2007 and I was so burned out and so depressed that I haven’t even been able to bring myself to look at blogs like this one again until a few months ago. I honestly wish I had never gone to college, or at least had never majored in Women’s Studies, because then I would still have hope and passion, if nothing else!

    On top of all that, a mysterious joint condition has left me unemployable and in constant severe pain and forced me to move back in with my parents. I can’t get either a diagnosis or Disability. My stepdad lost his job because of the crappy economy. My mother gets paid $1200 a month to take care of my grandmother who, because of her severe dementia, pisses and shits all over herself and her room on a daily basis, among other weirder things. For my entire life, I’ve done all the “right” things, and I’m worse off than ever before.

    But I really, truly want to see this as a starting place. I want to connect with other people. I want my vulnerability to have a purpose. But somehow I just can’t. In my heart, I honestly believe that I was born into abject poverty hated for who and what I am and I will die in abject poverty hated for who and what I am, because the world doesn’t get better, it only gets different. Still, every day I wake up and make the decision not to kill myself just yet, and what you’ve said here really makes me thing, so there’s time yet for a change of heart.

  4. Casey
    September 15, 2009 at 3:39 am

    Thank you so much for writing this. I wrote you a letter telling you about my own vulnerability, and you’re welcome to read it if you like.

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts for the next two weeks. Thank you in advance for making me examine things.

    My letter:

  5. Kristen J.
    September 15, 2009 at 3:48 am

    This was beautiful. I’m sitting here crying so hard my dog decided to check out what’s wrong with me. :) Its brought up too many things to go into, but I wanted to say, that this was very beautiful.

  6. September 15, 2009 at 5:47 am

    Amazing post. And you are so right.

  7. UnFit
    September 15, 2009 at 6:09 am


    It’s great to see you back, I remember a post from way back when about being a street medic.

    You write beautiful posts, and you manage to get into all this murky emotional stuff that is really important without getting cheesy or the annoying kind of emo.

    I used to be really involved with the radical left here. As in, it was my whole life, there was hardly anight without a meetig or a demonstration I missed out on…
    Then an ugly breakup led to an almost complete break with that whole scene. Dirty laundry was aired, cliches were being used against me which were very strong in these people’s mindset but had always bothered me… And finally I just gave up.

    For the past three years, there has been no loud activism on my part. I have not been out pushing cops, I have not been painting banners and organizing rallies and spending even more time hanging around shady bars planning out the revolution.

    I have been working, to make a living. And I’ve been trying very hard to do that in an ethical way which still won’t leave me burned out and broke (we’ll see how that goes).
    And I’ve been rethinking the whole way I form bonds and friendships, because apparently the old way didn’t work for me – or for anyone else much, looking at it now.
    I have been reading books like Radical Ecstasy and In the Flesh; I have been learning to live in my body, and I’d like to think I’ve helped some other people do so.
    I have fallen in love, for the first time ever in a way that does not seem neurotic from the start (again, time will tell). And we both have been using this as a field to learn, to practice. Sharing vulnerability. Being honest to ourselves first, and thereby to others. Enduring our own weakness and imperfection. Getting emotional, and disucussing our emotions, without getting completely irrational and tearful and blurring our boundaries.
    I have been continuing the great discussion about how we want to live, what it could mean to be free. Not at any kind of alternative summit, but by calling people on their bullshit in everyday life. And by baring some of my own life. By letting people in on the ways in which I’m different and showing them that there’s more than one way to live. And demanding respect for my way while learning to give more respect to others, who might live more conventionally.

    And I feel that in this relatively short time, I have achieved more – I have gotten through to more people, I have learned more about myself and built a more sustainable utopia, and what little changes I’ve brought into the world will be more lasting – than what I’ve done in 15 years of so-called political activism.

  8. September 15, 2009 at 7:36 am

    It’s amazing how many will hit when you’re down. When I was pregnant with my first and sick and terrified and single, I confided to two women who then tried to bully me, called me weak and useless, and did whatever they wanted to do to me. (More here.) On one hand I’m baffled by that lack of compassion towards a fellow human being, but on the other hand, some people are assholes. For some, having power over others feels better than using power to prop others up.

    Keep hanging in.

  9. S.Jean
    September 15, 2009 at 9:17 am

    Your writing touched my heart. I feel grateful for this. Many thanks for posting. I look forward to reading more from you.

  10. LSG
    September 15, 2009 at 9:26 am

    Little Light, I always appreciate your well-thought-out, compassionate, logical comments here, and I’m very excited to read your upcoming posts. And of course, as everybody has said, this one is amazing. Thank you.

  11. K
    September 15, 2009 at 10:52 am

    I was going to make a joke about how in fact I do love your organs, but that’d just be more tough-guy posturing so you wouldn’t figure out that this post made me cry and stuff.

    I love this so much.

  12. September 15, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    Thank you for this post.

  13. aJenniferOriginal
    September 15, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    I discussed vulnerability with my Dad this weekend for several hours on a road trip because he feels so frustrated with his parents not being “real.” I talked to him about how being “real” is a learned behavior and is about letting yourself be vulnerable. I said that they may NEVER get there because they aren’t even comfortable with expressing love, let alone anger, disappointment or sadness. I think it helped him heal a little bit and I have been mulling it over for several days. Thank you for shedding some of your light on the subject. You always add much to the conversation.
    Love, Jen

  14. September 15, 2009 at 6:45 pm

    thank you for talking about this. i have a lot of problems expressing vulnerability, and while part of it is definitely a fear that i’ll be attacked or have those vulnerabilities used against me, i think part of it is also a reluctance to focus on myself. i tend to think of myself as a tool for activism, rather than as a fellow human who deserves attention and caring also. turning the focus on myself to examine how i feel – to recognize the vulnerability, explore it, experience it – sometimes feels selfish and a waste of time that would be better spent elsewhere.

    recently on twitter, chally said something about taking care of yourself being a feminist act – and it jolted me the same way this post did. it’s ok to say i’m tired and i’m burned out and i’m discouraged both because of the vulnerability and because they’re all statements about myself and how i feel.

  15. dasha
    September 15, 2009 at 8:35 pm

    Raksha your story is similar but much more difficult than mine; I can say that I know that paralyzing hopelessness you’ve been living with. You’re depressed (and rightly so!) and you know you need support–that is why you reached out to share your story.

    I hope, hope, hope you keep trying to find your way out of this illness. You sound like a good person, with much to teach the world, who has a life full of pleasures (small and great) awaiting them. When you make progress in fighting depression, you will feel revitalized again, and then you will be able to take small steps to change your circumstances. The best thing you can do is to keep reaching out to people who understand and care about you.

    In the last month, I’ve been able to recover from a very deep depression–and I promise you, if you keep making small changes for the better, you will begin to feel empowered and hopeful once again. For me, getting well meant going to community-provided counseling, I hope you choose to pursue what you think you need. Keep ferreting out the good in life, that inspires and comforts you. It will get better.

  16. September 15, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    I love this blog. I can relate. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  17. Tlönista
    September 16, 2009 at 8:35 am

    Little Light,

    Everything you write is amazing. It makes me cry and it makes me see the world in different ways.

    Have you noticed who suffers when we build a movement premised on never admitting that we can hurt each other, on never admitting that we’re tired and limited and human and just aren’t up for it today? Who stops making blog posts, who stops showing up to meetings and town halls and community projects, stops putting their work out there and speaking openly and honestly?

    From my limited experience, it’s the most brilliant writers, the most revolutionary thinkers, the people with the most potential…they get burned out. And it isn’t good to be this way and we’ll never get anywhere if it keeps being this way. Thank you for this post.

  18. September 16, 2009 at 11:11 am

    thank you for this. im bad at linking things but i pulled a little of this ( i hope its ok) and linked you in my blog. cant wait to read more!!!

  19. Marissa
    September 16, 2009 at 11:07 pm

    There’s so much power in saying “I’m hurting”. Maybe not for people who feel fine, but for those of us who are also struggling. For me, I get so tired of being the only woman in the room, of having to fight against patriarchal standards that are old and painful. Thank you so much for commiserating with us. I didn’t even realize how much I needed to hear that from someone else until you said it. (Stupidly, when I’m flying on autopilot, I think everyone else has it under control and there’s something wrong with me that these things are affecting me so much.)

    I’m going to take some time now to breathe and forgive myself for hurting. My thoughts and compassion are with you Little Light. Muchas gracias for your vulnerability.

  20. Raksha
    September 17, 2009 at 3:47 am

    dasha – Thank you for your kind words. I’m very glad you’re making it through your tough times. And you’re right, I do need to keep trying. And I am! We’ve finally scraped enough $ together for the next doctor visit (up next: a neurologist!). I’m hoping that with some kind of concrete diagnosis, I can finally get Disability long enough to get me back to school to learn some languages. Verbal translation doesn’t require me to move any of my extremities! It’s just slow going because we’re so damn poor.

    Little Light – Just so you know, this blog post has already helped make a concrete, real world improvement (small though it may be). Part of my problem is isolation. I’m literally stranded in the middle of nowhere (it’s a half hour drive to the dubious civilization of a <400 person town). I haven't had a face-to-face conversation with someone who's not a relative or a health care worker in over two years. So I talked to some friends out of state and told them everything I've been going through and they ended up pooling their money for a plane ticket for me to come visit them! For the first time in a very long time, I'm actually excited about something!

  21. stacey m
    September 17, 2009 at 8:59 am

    thanks for this, love. sharing it everywhere.

  22. September 18, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    hello, i am another person here just to let you know that i think you are completely fucking amazing and your writing regularly brings me to exactly the best kind of tears and this is beautiful and is getting linked and will likely get reread a lot.

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