I’m standing in the middle of a new but familiar space – a standard-issue community center classroom, spotted with tables and stackable chairs. At the front, a whiteboard holds taped-up pieces of draft paper covered in cheerful instructions in English and Spanish. Tinny music is playing from someone’s smartphone, and the people in the room mill around each other, waiting for the song to stop.

We are performing the ubiquitous activist meeting opening ritual: an Icebreaker Activity.

I am virulently introverted; I dread Icebreaker Activities. This time we’ve been told to amble around like we’re playing musical chairs, with the optimistic encouragement to “move however you feel called in the moment,” as if forty-odd strangers are going to spontaneously be called to break into ecstatic dance. When the music stops, we’ll be given a question to discuss with whoever’s closest to us.

I actually like to dance, but right now all I can muster is a hokey white-person shuffle, smiling wryly to falsely imply I’m being awkward on purpose. The music stops as I shuffle near a black man who’s about a decade older than me. “I guess it’s you and me, huh?” he says. I do a goofy thumbs-up and immediately hate myself a little.

My partner is George, and he’s representing his labor union. I tell him I volunteer with a climate justice group. Up at the whiteboard, our conversation topic has been revealed. It’s a version of that cartoon where a school of little fish is ganging up to eat a big one, with a prompt scrawled below: WHAT DO YOU THINK??!

George and I look at each other. “Well,” he says slowly, “I think it’s a poorly phrased question, for one thing. Want to talk about something else?”

“Definitely,” I say.

It’s the first time anybody’s obliquely admitted to disliking these rituals as much as I do. My exposure to activists tends more to groups of earnest white people who want you to describe your experience of racial guilt during circle introductions.

We decide to just share why we’re there at the training. It’s the beginning session of four days of workshops and actions planned by a local coalition. The organizations involved are diverse but share a common target, a handful of powerful corporations based in our city. George is working to increase minimum pay and benefits for his janitorial union. Others in the room are fighting against slumlords, blatant wage theft, or threats of deportation.

“So,” says George, “what does your group do? Why are you here?”

Continue reading “Icebreaker”

Terms and tables

There are two tables in the room where I do my writing. One is my “standing desk,” i.e. a cheap piece from a certain Swedish superstore with two filing boxes stacked on top (it’s hella classy and ergonomic). The other table is an altar.

I struggled with this description for a long time – I called it my meditation spot, my reflection table, my thing-over-there. Lots of people practice meditation or contemplation, people from all sorts of cultural traditions, so that word felt less loaded with religious assumptions. But the second table in my room is not solely a meditation spot. It has tarot cards on it, along with rocks and seeds and bits of bone and other items one might most accurately call icons. So, if I’m being honest, it’s an altar.

The problem with the word is that it implies some kind of belief, and my beliefs are slippery. I’m not a monotheist; I’m not a polytheist. I might be a pantheist, for certain definitions of “pan” and “theist,” which is to say eight out of ten people who give a shit would think I’m not a pantheist. Those people would probably call me an atheist, except I disagree with practically all the cultural meaning that word has been given by strident jerks on the internet. Not to mention my use of tarot cards and scraps and icons, which most atheists would give a vigorous side-eye.

“Altar” isn’t the only imprecise term I’ve dug up over my past couple years of metaphysical spelunking. There’s “pagan,” and “witchy,” and “woo,” all of which bear relevance to the stuff I actually do at my thing-over-there table. But the words don’t fit exactly the way I want them to. Like an itchy sweater with too much fabric around the armpits.

It makes me wish for a philosophical and spiritual equivalent to the term “queer,” which I happily affix to myself exactly because of its slipperiness – flexibility is the point of the word. If somebody wants me to nail things down, I can use other terms, but only with a cumbersome amount of clarification (“bisexual” where “bi” means “genders both like and unlike one’s own;” “pansexual” with explanations of “yes, that’s a thing” and/or “no, poly is different”).

Were somebody to ask me what my spiritual beliefs are, specifically, I can’t begin to imagine how I’d explain it concisely. Or even in a way that made much sense.

Maybe that will change with experience and with better vocabulary. In the meantime, I sit at my little table – at my altar – and throw cards and meditate and light incense. Because these are actions that help me think differently about my life and about the world, actions that have meaning for me. And because my altar makes my beliefs more nuanced, rather than just more easily described.


3 of Swords: power, pain, and purpose

I’m up on the Little Red Tarot blog this week, talking about the stabby three of swords and its (sort of) positive side.

…when we numb ourselves to our own despair for the world, we cut ourselves off from our creativity as well. We bypass the emotional experiences that can unite us with like-minded others, and we stunt our ability to imagine new ways of combating what threatens to destroy us. Slowly, persistently, the three of swords is showing me how to do the work.

Find the full post here.