Beholden to the Head Nod, on how we’re led away from clarity
Snow days begin and end with changed plans, sometimes blessedly.
Inclement weather decisions keep you waiting lengthily for an exactness of a schedule, resulting for me in longer bursts of unclaimed time, and a forgetfulness towards my original demarcated tasks or alerts.
Instead my mind space is swarmed with reminders of any and all recent afterthoughts, articles, questions, probing, places where my thinking was paused or un-fully digested.
I feel a split impulse to write, and a disorganization about how and what I’d like to say. Or said another way, I feel the overflow of having had too many reactions that I didn’t make time for sooner.
Since graduating, every job I’ve had has involved working on nights and weekends, preventing me from taking part in a lot of community forums, and placing me in supportive or facilitative roles. Significantly, this fosters an attunement, and a disconnection, situating my participation in conversation as frayed.
As I make decisions about how to seek employment and paid work, I’ve erected strong boundaries around control of my time, anticipating returning to the pace that I am seeking an alternative to. Seeking especially freedom in how and when and by whom my skills are leveraged, and needing more transparency about connected expectations before I agree to meeting them.
I find myself noting what relationships feel fragile, what systems and networks appear fragile, and what places of formlessness embroil are discussions and reads on how to create priorities for our shared work. Language feels hollow in subtle ways, with rhetoric eclipsing both personalization and clarification, preventing us from making room in our public containers for dialogues to be constructed, and from assumptions being stated explicitly for us to respond to and question for each other.
Strategies of appeasement and distractibility produce a murky calm that offers respites of harmony, and I revert to my middle child acculturation to both recognize those behaviors, and understand why they’re selected and rewarded interpersonally. We are tired of conflict, and we’ve allowed no airing of grievances to be taken seriously or allowed to continue until sustainable resolutions are set. We bypass the processes that fuel our anxiety, and yet are left wondering why no release can materialize. We reach for consensus as a catchall when what we really want is an arbitrator to take back the reigns with their authority. We want control, but we don’t want responsibility, and we don’t want to unpack what being responsible and in control could mean amidst the minefields we fluently walk by without stepping over.
It brings back memories of conversations with my niece when she was in high school. My eldest niece is a month older than my youngest sister, which meant that my growing up thrust me in labels that were constantly overlapping in the control and authority attributed to me. I grew up alongside kids, being simultaneously a child, a peer and a caregiver, at the mercy of dynamics that I did and did not perceive or grasp at any given time, and at the mercy of how aging changed those dynamics from year to year.
My niece grew up attending charter schools, each setting different criteria for standardized learning as my brother and sister in law would move from state to state. Accessing a public-school system on the east coast as a ninth grader created a chasm of how those varied school experiences would be encoded and accredited. It meant tough decisions about how to view your academic history, and how to make decisions about what courses to take, what help to ask for, and how defensive to feel when hearing other people’s often unsolicited advice. And it didn’t become less relevant or tenuous with time.
Over breakfast one day, as I was also in high school and making decisions about what came next, I listened empathetically and offered both a validating and a practical truth. This circumstance is not your fault, but it is your responsibility. This was not a sentiment of weaponizing personal responsibility, or flattening the involved power dynamics, or even of suggesting that there was a right path forward. It was an attempt as both a young person and an aunt to name that this isn’t going away, and I can’t make it go away. I can’t take back the decisions you’ll need to make, and I can’t make any of them for you. It was a commitment to her agency, and an acknowledgment that true consent doesn’t begin with foundations of power and control that are as one sided as we experience them, even as the language used sounds like all the cards are in our hands and the right choices agreed upon and accessible. It was a frame shift that I was similarly wrestling with in deciding what takeaways to bring from my adolescence into my adulthood, and what voices of influence and comradery.
There’s a way to hear this exchange and miss the point that it made for me then or makes for me now, mainly that I believe that power dynamics shift before and even whether or not they are ever un-internalized, and I believe some fallout can’t be undone or solved. And I believe that there are still practical questions not answered in that belief, about what meaning that perpetuates as you gain distance.
There’s a way to hear this exchange between my niece and I and interpret it as a young person adopting the presumed more stable logic of adults and authority figures. There’s a way to hear this and sense dismissiveness, and minimizing, and privilege. And there’s a way to avoid asking for any other information or context.
My memory is attuned this afternoon to how our brains want to assign evolution and permanence in predictable ways, making perspective and attention questions we don’t have to ask or account for.
My memory is noting how our environments take advantage of opportunities they have to shape how we think about our own thinking and judgment, perpetuating a logic that is disconnected and impersonal in its scope as well as acuity.
My memory is noting what compels and allows me to ask follow up questions, to stay present in conversations, to comment on what isn’t being commented on, to discontinue what relationships.
My memory is aware that narrative is carefully and subconsciously constructed for stated and unstated purposes, and that altering narratives in our discourse that remain internalized in our experiences can’t change our responsive behavior. We can’t learn skills that contradict skills we’ve still dependent upon, and this logic follows for our relationships and sense of self.
This illustration is currently playing out in the community I grew up in. Arlington has a blind spot to its own affluence and how that shapes our narrative for progressive politics. Returning to work in Arlington ten years after leaving reveals a whiter, and more racially segregated Arlington. Reveals wealth disparities, and a confusion about what produces marginalization and changing demographic truths.
In decisions about redrawing lines for school districting and being a site for Amazon’s expanded headquarters, we hear glimpses of internalized exceptionalism that rejects and expresses rationale for choices that perpetuate structural racism. We see a created imperviousness to labels that counter how we experience ourselves, and we shift the conversation away from the connections we’re not willing to include in our logic. Rather than articulating our points against counter arguments, we draw boundaries to exclude counter points from our public conversation.
Here again there is a microcosm of what we’re seeing in our national public discourse, where disconnected conclusions remain insulated from visible areas of connection in how we understand interconnected decisions and their effects. Where public leaders continually fail character-tests we set up for them, and we put off challenging our assumption that character tells us what behaviors someone has or will engage in. Where patterns of behavior are fed to us as isolated incidents through large scale gaslighting. Where we went to high school with someone or were their neighbor or view them as a lesser evil than a threat we’ve constructed as unrelated, and suddenly conversations are exclusively personal. Where something being personal makes it apolitical in our minds, or where there can be different norms and criteria used at different times that are presumed and permitted to be in flux and not transparent. Where Representative Ilhan Omar is made to apologize for saying the truth in public, and President Trump can alter the boundaries of a national emergency, un-held to any boundaries at all.
I reflect on going to college in the third poorest county in Georgia, learning in my last teenage years the role of a State University in perpetuating poverty amidst the rise of the War on Terror, the Birther Movement, terms like grey rape, and legitimate rape, and an erasure of experiences both personal and impersonal to me. I reflect on confronting unsubtle structural racism amidst a vocabulary I was establishing more slowly than I needed it, against confusing and contradictory narrations of what was happening and why and even if it was significant. I reflect on what feels unsubtle to me now compared to then, and what feels more muddled in how it is narrated. I reflect on the discipline of focused attention that isn’t defended against gaslighting and a strumming of triggers and elongated crises.
I reflect with more words and more feeling and inconsistent attention, and unresolved conclusions about whose information I can trust, both internally and relationally and politically, in all the layered and overlapping categories that encompasses.
As I’ve had, for the first time professionally, opportunities to participate in community forums, I’ve been struck by the interlacing of new members and long-time members, together making sense of priorities. Most consistently, I’ve paid attention to how new ideas are introduced, or how ideas are presumed to be new because something is not in place to respond to that need. As I find myself now a part of more communities as less of a newcomer, I see the holes in how we orient each other to discontinuity, failing to tell the stories of how we have disassembled containers when tension has been uncovered. The appeasement and harmony confuse our explanations, in the moments where words are spoken at all. The layering of what containers can hold and what happens when transgressions occur frequently raise questions of how to make our containers resilient to their weaknesses when they’re unearthed. How do we change our patterns of disconnection and dismemberment so our understandings can see more pieces in context? How do we grow our own resilience to being responsive to information rather than defensive? How do we arm ourselves against widespread gaslighting, knowing that energy and attention are resources that run out? How do we ask practical questions unanswered by our beliefs?
I wonder if the gift of snow days is in their disorientation, and the surfacing of connections becoming harder to avoid. There’s a lot to try and see at once, and it can and maybe should disorient us. Maybe there’s a wisdom in the dizzying that knocks you over before you can stand still or eventually walk.