It is July Again: A Reflection on Grief and Staying in the Work
(Originally posted on Tumblr in July 2016)
I take a deep breath and look out, feeling the cold making my toes curl. It’s pretty chilly, but the sunlight is warm and it is beautiful coming through the trees. The small things: the sunlight, the taste of good coffee, a sweet cinnamon bun, sweet texts — these are the pieces of joy I hang on to. They come and they are there. They go away, but they can still be accessible tomorrow, the next day, a month later. I can depend on them.
It is hard to write about personal grief in any sort of way that feels comprehensive, full, and complex. It feels almost impossible to write about that grief and holds and honors commitment to movement building, to engaging in deep political moments like the ones we are living in now — because the truth is, we can’t disengage. As a friend once said: the stakes are too high.
I missed the last weekend I could have ever spent with my little brother, Mark. I was at a somatics retreat with with the Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative (SNaP Co) and the Racial Justice Action Center (RJAC), an organization that I had joined 8 months prior. SNaP Co and RJAC use somatics as a part of our commitment to transformative organizing. Somatics is a method and a theory of change that understands that individual and collective transformation can be embodied, helping us align our values and actions. I left that weekend with skills and lessons that I still use and practice everyday: most importantly centering in my dignity, belonging, experiences, and what matters most to me.
In somatics, we have what we call ‘grabs’. Grabs are moments, situations, and conversations that ‘grab’ us and pull us away from being centered. Some grabs are bigger than others: a grab might be an annoying & frustrating conversation or relationship dynamic. It is also a grab when you walk into the door of your house and your mother chokes the words out: “Mark is dead”, while your father is crying in the other room.
Two days before my little brother killed himself, Mia Henderson, a black trans woman from Baltimore, was found murdered. She was the second trans woman from Baltimore found murdered in the past two months. The day after that, Eric Garner was strangled to death by Officer Daniel Pantaleo in New York. Three weeks later, Michael Brown was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson.
Their lives were as sacred and needed to the world as Mark’s was. And these deaths, among the many others, amplify the already present collective grief and trauma that exists. These are not times to opt-out, to disengage. As a white, hard of hearing, class privileged, queer/dyke identified trans woman, to do so would not just be an act of privilege, but an act of complicity. If there is a time to be rigorous in our actions for collective liberation, for Black liberation, for trans liberation, it is now. It is today.
And as much as I believe that, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t choose to opt out of movement building and organizing at different points in the last two years or take a break. That sometimes I have one foot in the door of the work and the other foot aching to run to the hills, hide, and cry and say fuck it. That I just want to stop. Sometimes I followed the other foot. When I get stuck in that binary — that taking time to heal means I should step out of organizing and ways of supporting that work or doing that work as more important than personal healing — as if one precludes focus on the other — I am stuck in a zero sum game in which neither decision feels sufficient or accurate.
While I believe healing is important and needed and that we all have a right to heal from our trauma, I also think it’s important to be rigorous in examining our thoughts, actions, and decisions, particularly for those of us whose lives are shaped by the benefiting from intersecting systems of violence. I think we can still ask ourselves the question, “Are my actions aligned with my principles and values?” Because even in the face of our grief, I believe we can still be in a practice of doing whatever we can to make the end of white supremacy and other systems of oppression come as swiftly as possible.
The fact of the matter is that white supremacy, anti-black racism, capitalism, ableism, colonialism, imperialism, and cissexism are the conditions that we are living in until we end them. We didn’t choose for them to be the conditions we were born in. What we do have a choice in is whether we put continue to put the work in, show up with love and power, and fight to win and dismantle that shit.
Yes, I’m pretty sure the bar is set that high. Liberation work doesn’t really seem to ask for less than that.
I’m not saying that self-care isn’t something important for us to prioritize in our movement work. That taking a break, a pause, is not an option, especially for those of us surviving trauma, personal and collective. It is. It has to be. Our wounds, our trauma, our survivorship is here, in our bodies. It shows up no matter how much we try to shove it away. It sticks its persistent head out in the ways we structure our relationships with each other and how much of ourselves and our power and our resources we bring with us and share with our comrades and loved ones.
During a recent somatics training, I was told that a somatic contradiction is two opposing truths or narratives that compete against each other. The trainers taught me that it is possible to build and practice a skill of sitting inside contradictions, and still, center on vision and commitment. Over the last two years, one of the central contradictions I was and often am sitting in is a story that says I have to leave to deal with my grief and that I should disappear and self-isolate vs. a story that says movement work is more urgent, more important, and I should compartmentalize and put my grief away to do the work well.
When I’ve focused on one side of the contradiction and put my grief and trauma on the shelf, it pops up again and again and forces me to sit my ass down. When I focus on the other side, I lean into practices of isolation, a “pull myself up by my bootstraps”-type of practice to my healing, believing I have nothing strong or good or creative to offer, and just get small, making those voices that say I should die or disappear get louder and louder. With neither one of them feeling like enough, I move like a pendulum between the two. Neither is useful to the ways I want them to be, and I was left aching for something more, something else to be possible. It turns out there was.
One of the people I met when I first joined the RJAC and SNaP Co was Juan Evans. I stumble in my head to try to adequately write about him. He had one of the most beautiful smiles I have ever seen, his laugh drew one out of me, and he was one of the strongest and most powerful organizers I have ever met. He was kind, generous, sweet, courageous, and vulnerable, and so committed to making liberation, safety, and collective power be real alongside his own transformation and healing. Building a friendship and organizing alongside him left me feeling a call to follow his leadership and do the same, to show up every day with that level of commitment, courage, and love.
Juan was part of that first group of organizers in RJAC and SNaP Co that I practiced somatics with. Two weeks later, at the end of the memorial service for Mark, I walked out with my given family to see Juan sitting in Everette’s car, waiting in the parking lot. He was the first person I saw or talked to after the service, and immediately gave me a big hug. He told me that he loved me, held me tight, and told me that he had lost a brother — telling me he’d tell me the story sometime if I wanted to hear it. It meant everything to me. It taught me about the seriousness of showing up, of putting in the work to be family. He reminded me more times than I can count that I was loved and that he loved me. It’s something that I want to practice more in all of my relationships.
Three days before my twenty-fifth birthday, after two weeks of being in the hospital after complications arose from a routine surgery, Juan transitioned to join the ancestors. I was supposed to take a shift at the hospital with the family that afternoon. He was buried four days later, on the one-year anniversary of Mark’s suicide, July 18.
I started writing this piece at the end of last year, during winter, hence the descriptions of the cold at the beginning. Now, it is July again. When I go out to that porch, I feel the sticky heat of summer and instead of coffee, I drink a cold smoothie in the mornings or a cold beer in the evenings. In the next week and a half: my 26th birthday will pass, the anniversaries of Juan’s and Mark’s passings will come and go, as well as the first family reunion on my mother’s side without my grandmother, Margaret. She passed a few months ago, back in April.
The collective grief, trauma, and urgency and deep need to stop white supremacist, cissexist, and homophobic violence and the overall conditions of oppression haven’t stopped either. The attacks keep on coming.
Two months ago at a training in May, I felt sure of something big. I was nervously ready to accept something I couldn’t imagine two years ago — that it was possible I could hold all of my grief, loss, and sadness and commit to the consistent leadership I wanted to embody every day. So, with the support of loved ones, chosen family, and comrades, I made a promise to myself:
I am a commitment to confident, authentic, and joyful leadership, bold political imagination, and dignity.
It feels weird and tough and disjointed to talk about joy as something to embody. It was the hardest part of the promise for me to commit to — isn’t joy fleeting & isn’t it just getting my hopes up & doesn’t it clash with authenticity? A teacher asked: “What does joy mean to you?” And I realized that joy felt like aliveness, like choosing life and living while holding grief, sadness, anger, and despair too. That feeling those feelings was living and aliveness, too. I didn’t realize it then, but I can see pieces of Mark and Juan that I looked up to and were inspired by in that promise as well as the ways they pushed me to be my best self. Noticing that brings me joy, like I’m doing right by them and the comrades I work with today.
If there’s anything I wish that I could have told myself, two Julys ago, in the wake of Mark’s death, it’s this:
Waking up every day will feel impossible. You will think that joy and hope are long gone. And for the moment, they will be. But even when it’s really hard, stay connected to what matters to you, and you can bring your grief and the ghosts of your loved ones with you. Just keep doing it. You will soften, you will build new muscles, and it will guide you home.