Want to fix a problem? The first step is to name it.

Therapists commonly tell their clients that you need to name a problem before you can fix it, and this is just as true for social change as it is for individual change. Still, discussions about white supremacy often make we who understand ourselves as white uncomfortable. We often avoid that language, describing individual circumstances or problems without naming the system that causes them. This is even true among well-intentioned, left-leaning, progressive whites who believe deeply in human rights and who, to greater and lesser degrees, fight against racism. They may feel attacked when a term they associate with neo-Nazis is used in a way that sounds like it might implicate them. The term feels divisive and alienating, and makes it hard for them to continue conversations that are focused on dismantling a system of practices that frequently benefits them even while they, themselves, may be fighting for social justice.

I’m thinking about this all the more since yesterday, after Heather Heyer was killed and many were injured by a white supremacist in Charlottesville, VA. Heyer was part of a crowd of demonstrators protesting a group of white supremacists. The white supremacists were themselves protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E Lee, a man who fought to keep slavery in place, and who, like every confederate general, could better be understood as a traitor to the United States and not as someone to be honored with statues in US town squares and names on US military bases.

It’s easy for a majority of white people in the US to point to neo-Nazis and racist skinheads and use the term “white supremacist” to describe them. That’s why it’s jarring to hear the term “white supremacy” used to describe a system of power and oppression instead of a person.* The system doesn’t look like the neo-Nazis. It looks like all the taken-for-granted patterns in our society that benefit those who are understood to be white over others, or that oppress those who are not understood to be white. It looks like the dominant culture and institutions supported, frequently unthinkingly but sometimes consciously, by many of us who are understood as white. And we don’t think of ourselves as anything like the skinheads.

That’s exactly why we need to call the system what it is, though. We won’t see it for what it is unless we call it what it is. If we don’t name the system, all we can do is talk about individual pieces. Marilyn Frye, in an essay called “Oppression,” from her book The Politics of Reality (1983), pointed out that if you look at a bird cage and you focus only on a single wire, you will never understand why the bird isn’t free. If you see two wires, even if you see how they cross, you still won’t see why the bird can’t just fly around. You need to see the cage. If we see the cage, we need a name for it.

In the United States, the best name for the entire cage is “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” a term I first learned from reading Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984), by bell hooks, when I was in college. Michael Eric Dyson in yesterday’s New York Times narrows the focus a bit and calls it the bigotocracy.

To understand why it’s important to see the whole system, take an issue like police brutality, something that’s been the focus of much deserved attention for several years now. If we want to address police brutality, we can’t look at individual cops as “bad apples,” or even at an individual police force. We need to see the connections between the militarization of the police, the over-policing of Black, Latino, and Asian neighborhoods, the so-called war on drugs, and the constitution’s support for slavery via incarceration. If we want to understand why people who are understood as white are less likely to live in those neighborhoods, we need to understand that for centuries Blacks were prohibited from owning property (because they were deemed property and not human), and thus people who are understood to be white have had hundreds of years head start consolidating and passing on property from generation to generation. We need to understand white flightredlining, racial steering, and the educational inequality that is grounded in that residential segregation and a school funding system based on local property values.

This is a system that benefits whites and is based on the idea that those with wealth and property are smarter, work harder, and are more deserving than others. The fact that most of us are taught in elementary school – no matter what neighborhood we grow up in – that in the US anyone who works hard to get ahead (meritocracy) is essentially white supremacy in action because it is an ideology that prevents children from learning about the way that the system privileges whites while oppressing everyone else. When parents in highly-rated well-off mostly-white school districts resist merging with under-resourced schools, they are thinking not of white supremacy, but of their children’s individual futures. Still, they are participating in white supremacy. When white college applicants protest affirmative action because they lose out on an admissions slot to a preferred school, they are not thinking of white supremacy but of their own individual futures. Still, they are participating in white supremacy. When neighbors sell houses because people of color begin to buy houses in the area, they are thinking of the value of the wealth they have tied up in their homes and not of white supremacy. Still, they are participating in white supremacy.

If we are going to fix this we need to see the whole system, call it what it is, and be willing to educate ourselves about how it works. Many whites do this work, but more of us need to, and we can’t let the discomfort of it stop us. We also need to support each other in the process. Loretta Ross, a longtime women’s rights, civil rights, and reproductive justice advocate who spoke at Woodhull’s Sexual Freedom Summit last week, reminded whites that white supremacy can kill our souls, too, and that if we care about human rights, we need to work to dismantle it not just to save people of color, but also to save ourselves. Willingly benefiting from the oppression of others erodes our own humanity.

What can we do if we want to work at dismantling white supremacy? To return to my example of the connection between housing, wealth, and education, we can demand a new funding structure for our schools so that their resources are no longer linked to the property values of their surrounding communities. We can demand the integrating of truly affordable housing into communities where the wealthy live so that we don’t have class-segregated, and thus racially-segregated communities and schools. We can at the very least acknowledge that we are benefiting from a system that is unjust, and we can sit with the discomfort that causes us when people call it by its name. Then we can learn more about how it works so that we can help those who are working to take it apart. Those of us who are progressive, who support human rights and social justice, might need to become uncomfortable enough to take actions more radical than we’re used to.

*For what it’s worth, if the confusion is just too much, I’d much rather rename the white supremacists “super-racist assholes” and save the term “white supremacy” for the system than concede the term as an individual label and be unable to call the system what it is. But, I don’t think that’s necessary. Most of us can grasp that Democrats are people who belong to a party, where democracy is a system that involves many other kinds of people. Most of us can grasp that we participate in capitalism even if we are not, ourselves, capitalists. I have faith that we can begin to understand that we are inevitably participating in white supremacy even if we are not white supremacists.


“big bird in a small cage” by Elia Scudiero is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Three things – 11/20/16: Identity and the election

This week I’ve ben thinking a lot about identity and the election. No surprise, I’m sure. Identity politics has been at the forefront of many election analyses in the couple of weeks. Racism, sexism, and heterosexism intersected powerfully in this election, and the voting patterns of whites, and particularly of white women without women college degrees, has been given particular attention for good reason. The emboldening of white supremacist groups by Trump’s campaign dog whistles – and his explicitly racist comments – signals a rise of identity politics on the far right at exactly the moment when we on the left are wondering whether we need to focus on economics over identity. I’d argue that we can’t separate economics from identity entirely. Class is identity. Race is identity. Discriminatory policies are often based on ideas about identities and the power and privilege that attach to them.

Here are three articles I’ve read that gave me different ways to think about identity in this election.

The End of Identity Liberalism,” by Mark Lilly, criticizes the tendency of we on the left to focus on rights and issues attached to specific categories or communities of people. Lilly, a humanities professor at Columbia University,  argues that liberals have lost track of the kinds of broad-based economic and local community needs that unite people across identity-based communities. While there is a degree to which this claim makes sense to me, I think he misses the ways that suburbanization and de facto class and race segregation in our communities have each done more to undermine civic discourse. I also think that Lilly underestimates the importance of identity politics in securing the kinds of fundamental human rights that protect ethnic, racial, sexuality and gender minorities. That said, broad based movements like the labor movement have at times done excellent work to fold those into a broader agenda. We certainly wouldn’t be in this mess if we had a stronger labor movement.

How We Broke Democracy, But Not The Way You Think,” by Tobias Rose-Stockwell on Medium.com, picks up on the identity issue by looking at the way that social media reinforces the fragmentation of audiences – groups of people paying attention to something – by filtering our information according to very micro-level patterns in our social networks. Taken together with the segregation of our physical communities, this online segregation is potentially devastating to cross-community discourse. If we look at the red-county/blue-county divide and see “two Americas,” this analysis actually shows us that there are millions of Americas, and they overlap in ways that reinforce bias and belief, and heighten our tendency to respond with emotion rather than reason.

An Open Letter to White Liberal Feminists,” by Rhon Marigault-Bryant, published on the web site of the African American Intellectual History Society, expresses a mix of disappointment and hope. Marigault-Bryant is a professor of Africana Studies at Williams College, and her disappointment is aimed particularly at those feminists whose focus on simple equality of opportunity in the workplace or in colleges and universities has often rendered invisible the structural racism puts the lives and futures of people of color at risk in ways that are much more fundamental than whether or not they’ll get equal pay at their law firm job. Her hope is that, at last, some of those feminists will realize that even their liberal agendas are at risk, but I have to say that in my own years of struggling against liberal feminism’s opposition to many human rights issues that matter to me as a queer socialist feminist, I’m not sure I have much hope.

As usual I don’t have answers, but I do know this. Identity is a powerful organizing tool, and communities are certainly affected differently – and targeted differently – based on identity-linked aspects of their members. When people say “we’ve neglected the white working class and their economic anxieties,” they may be implying that members of the white working class are not concerned about identity, but that would be replicating a mistake we make all to often: assuming whiteness as a standard, and class as purely financial. I know one thing for certain: Neither of those things is true.


“Lets Talk” conversation bubble image is by Ron Mader on Flickr and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike generic license.

Three Things That Helped Me This Morning


Image is of a dozen overlapping conversation bubbles in a range of colors with the words “let’s talk” underneath.

My initial reactions to Tuesday night were, in order, disbelief, anger, and hopelessness. Over the last couple of days I’ve listened, watched, and participated in a number of conversations about moving forward. Earlier today, I posted the following on Facebook:

We’ve come to the point where it’s about “survival” for 99% of us, but we 99% are divided about what survival requires. Those divisions are fueled by decades of residential segregation, fear-mongering, and economic exploitation. Trump’s middle-America voters who are hoping for that Carrier plant to stay open? They’re going to be angry and disappointed. Others whose bigotry has been emboldened threaten those of us whose skin color, religion, or relationships offend them, making it really fucking hard for us to talk to those who are mostly just worried about that Carrier plant. Many of us across the political spectrum stand to lose health care, access to education, and jobs. The 1% that remains in charge no matter who wins elections has the rest of us right where they need us.

That seemed to resonate with a lot of people, and it got me thinking about the small things we can do to contribute to the building of a future that truly sustains many more of us. I’m thinking about how our social media bubbles insulate us and harm us. I’m thinking about how our communities feel vindicated or threatened. I’m thinking about the fear-mongering and about the very real dangers many of us are facing. I’m thinking about how desperately we need to be able to talk across difference and about how hard that is when we feel more and more polarized and threatened. The threats are real and yet the polarization is greater than it needs to be. In my classrooms I work with students who are often for the first time interacting with a diverse group of peers. Facilitating conversation, even being present in conversation, when the underlying inequalities are so deep and yet often rendered invisible, is a challenge. That is a challenge many of us need to take up.

This morning over breakfast I read three pieces that helped me think about the complexities we face in trying to talk about this election and all that it touches. I want to share them, just as three possible levers to use in moving conversations about the future.

The first was a news article from The New York Times, “Can Trump Save Their Jobs? They’re Counting On It,” written by Nelson D. Schwartz, asking what will happen if Donald Trump can’t save the Carrier manufacturing plant in Indiana that he used as a central figure in his campaign speeches.

The second was a more personal piece with the title “What a Gay, Muslim, Pakistani-American Immigrant Learned Traveling to Rural Alaska the Week Before the Election,” written by Riaz Patel, and published on GlennBeck.com. Patel talks about the people he met while traveling across the United States, including a trip to Alaska, meeting and getting to know – and getting known by – exactly the kinds of white working class voters that have been so central to discussions about the 2016 election.

The third was an open letter from Our100.org, a coalition of leaders who are women of color and who are committed to continuing the work of organizing for social justice. They recognize that it is often the work of women, and often of women of color, queer women, immigrant women that pushes the nation to do the right thing, focus on on solutions and breaking down the politics of hate.

I’m sharing these three pieces because they come from very different sources and because they identify some of the ways that survival is at stake for so many of us.

I’m thinking of all of the small things we can each do to contribute to one another’s survival. One thing I commit to doing is to sharing three articles a week that were meaningful to me as I think about the issues we have to face. This campaign didn’t create the issues. Instead, the issues created the conditions for the campaigns we watched and the election outcome we’ve all just witnessed.

Here’s one small thing I’m going to do. I’m going to start a weekly email newsletter – just a very small thing – that will share three articles I’ve read recently that helped me think about and talk about these issues with people who don’t immediately share my perspective. I’ll include a brief summary (no more than what I’ve included above), that explains what prompted me to share the article. I might include a couple of questions that the articles prompted me to ask. And maybe a cat picture or some small bit of humor.

If you’d like to receive such a thing, SUBSCRIBE HERE.



“Lets Talk” conversation bubble image is by Ron Mader on Flickr and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike generic license.

What Happens When Planning Is Precipitous

Which WayIn my previous post, I wrote about planning and patience as distinct from waiting for good things to happen. What do you do, though, when you don’t have a clear goal? Planning requires a destination, and sometimes all we know is that we need change, but we don’t feel like there’s a clearly acceptable destination ahead.

This week I sat with a young person who is uncertain about how to describe their gender identity. They’ve got a psychiatrist who supports a diagnosis of gender dysphoria but this young person isn’t sure that’s accurate, and the psychiatrist isn’t so clear about gender fluidity. If these are not terms that are familiar to you, that’s okay. What’s important is to understand that for this young person, the enthusiasm of the therapist to assign a particular diagnosis felt like pressure to make a choice rather than feeling like a deliberately chosen pathway. I offered an alternative possibility: insist on the time and space to just be how you are for a while, without regard to diagnosis. This person had been happiest a few years earlier when living in a very androgynous way, but that as an “adult” that androgyny didn’t feel like an acceptable way of being any more. They felt pressured to fit neatly into a gender box, and that pressure was making them unhappy. It wasn’t clear just yet whether this young person wanted a plan that would lead to transition, or instead wanted a plan to deal with the disapproval of their previously comfortable self-expression.

It’s not uncommon to feel constrained by a limited set of unsatisfactory choices. This can happen whether we’re facing identity challenges, career challenges, or relationship challenges. Sometimes those limited choices are unavoidable, but sometimes what we need is to carve out the time and space to consider whether as-yet-unconsidered alternatives are possible. When you need to do that, here are some things I recommend:

1. Identify at least one friend, family member, colleague, coach or therapist you can trust to tolerate the ambiguity with you. You need to have at least one person to talk to throughout this process who won’t prejudge your situation or impose ideas about what your conclusion should be. This should be a patient person, because this process is going to take some time.

2. Set a timeframe during which you are committed to living with the ambiguity. This is a time during which you promise yourself you won’t force yourself to make a choice. It’s a committed period of reflection and exploration. It’s an imaginative and unrestricted period. If you reach the end and need to extend it, feel free to do that. But give yourself at least the amount of time you initially set aside. I recommend setting a time that’s at least a month, and quite likely longer, but obviously this will depend on the indIvidual circumstances.

3. Imagine, and feed your imagination! Brainstorm wtih the person or people you identified above. Tap other people in your life who might have insight about creative alternatives. Read novels and watch movies related to your own situation to spark new ideas.

Once you have a clearer sense of your actual options, then it’s time to evaluate them and choose a path. Only then can you begin to plan!

And if, like I suspect will be the case for the young person I was talking to earlier this week, what you really need to change is society and not yourself, then make an interim plan for living with the friction between you and the parts of your society that are impinging on your freedom while you work toward the revolution, whatever that revolution might be!

Need to talk about the ambiguity and options in your own life?




This Way” image used courtesy ArtistIvanChew on Flickr, under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

Do Good Things Come To Those Who Wait?

dont-waitYes! Absolutely they do. But here’s the catch:

Those good things that come while you’re waiting? They aren’t always the good things you were hoping for. The vacation you patiently waited for someone else to arrange was lovely, but it wasn’t the destination you’d had in mind. The promotion at work? Certainly a sign that they value your contributions, but you’d been dreaming of moving to a different department.

Good things may come while you wait, but if there is a specific good thing for which you are waiting, then don’t confuse waiting with patiently and persistently pursuing a plan. If good things come to those who wait, and if patience is a virtue, then the path of patient planning is road that truly leads to the good things for which you are waiting.

As an acronym, Patiently, Persistently Pursuing a Plan, may cause some laughter. PPPP! Say it out loud and you may at first think it sounds like a spluttering car engine. I prefer to think of it as the revving sound you make because you’re so excited about your plan that you can’t hold back from the starting line. Go ahead, try it again. Don’t you feel like a race car, ready to roar?

Once you’ve hit the ignition and your engine’s roaring and your tank is fueled with your plan, it’s important to ease your foot off the pedal and slow down. If you continue at breakneck speed, you’ll miss a turn and crash you plan. Patiently, persistently pursuing a plan means giving yourself enough time to see each step and adapt as needed.

Here are 3 more Ps to keep you moving, slow and steady, toward your goal.

  1. Planning tools are essential, whether they are simple T charts for evaluating pros and cons to make a decision, or elaborate SWOT analysis for making a long-range strategic plan. They can be digital, or they can be pen-and-paper. They can be expensive systems that connect to communities of users, or they can be one-offs that you design for yourself. Whatever they are, none will be perfect. Pick one that fits your basic needs and then modify it to make it fit. A friend just gave me a planning journal system that I think looks exciting and I’m going to try it out myself. I’ll be sure to take notes on what i needed to modify, and if the tool seems valuable I’ll share it with you at the end of the 13 week trial.
  2. Partners are key to planning success. I have a client who believes herself to be very resistant to planning. She is a very adaptive, reactive person. She lives very in the moment and thinks in kind of a big-picture, stream-of-consciousness way. But get her talking to someone who thinks strategically and long-range, and all that big-picture, stream-of-consciousness brilliance can be turned into a plan. Sometimes planning requires a partner. Even when we’re good at making our own plans, sticking to them often requires the kind of accountability that can only be provided by others.
  3. Plasticity is another P you can add to your revving-up. Your plan needs to be flexible enough to allow for change. Commitment to your goals is key to attaining them, but a willingness to evaluate along the way will help you see whether your goals have shifted. You don’t want to patiently and persistently pursue a plan that takes you to someplace you’d rather not be at the end.

In my next post, I’ll give you some tips on making plans, but I’m also interested to hear from you about the planning tools you find useful. Have a system you find particularly helpful? Leave a note in the comments!


Not sure how to get started with your own plan? I can help!



“Don’t Wait” sign image used courtesy of an Creative Commons license: Title
CC BY-SA 3.0

Two Mantras To Help You Make More Time For Yourself

How often do you find yourself looking at your calendar and wondering how it got so overwhelmingly full? How frequently do you look at an item on your to do list and ask yourself “Why did I agree to take this on?”

One of the biggest time management challenges – especially for women – is saying no to things that people ask us to do. Sometimes it’s that we enjoy being needed and we take pride in our ability to juggle a thousand things and while still producing high quality work. Other times it’s that we really want to focus on our own work but feel guilty or selfish about guarding our own time.

The truth is that, either way, we can’t be very helpful to others if we don’t protect ourselves from burnout and from being taken advantage of, and that requires that we learn to say no. But saying no is tough, especially in conversation, and especially when our ordinary inclination is to jump in and save the day. Here are two mantras you can use to help you say no when your schedule is really too full to take on that extra task.

1. “I’d love to help with that, but let me check my calendar first.” This is my favorite because all it does is break the pressure that comes from the face-to-face or over-the-phone interaction itself. You aren’t saying no right away. You’re just buying time to really examine whether or not you want to take the new thing on. Give yourself that time. And then, if the answer is no, send an email apologizing for being unable to say yes, but explaining that your schedule just can’t accomodate whatever you were being asked to do. If the person who made the request follows up in person or on the phone, you’ve already said your “no” and you can repeat your reasons if necessary.

2. “I can’t take that on this time, but please keep me in mind in the future.” Sometimes we know right away we can’t do something, and the first mantra isn’t necessary because we don’t need to buy time to think about it. I often get email requests to do peer-review of research articles for academic journals. Sometimes I can say yes, but other times I know that I have too much work to do. By keeping the door open to say yes in the future, this mantra allows me to say no in those moments when I have to put my own work first.

I’ve used the word mantra intentionally here. A mantra is a repeated utterance that helps to focus the mind in meditation. The mantras I’ve shared above need to be repeated and practiced so that you can focus your mind on strategically organizing your time and your work. Repeating them will help you establish discipline with your time and control over your schedule. That discipline will go a long way toward allowing you to help others as much as you can while still getting the time you need for yourself and your own work.


“Too Busy” image by Alan O’Rourke of WorkCompass.Com and used courtesy of a Creative Commons Attribution license.

Buffy, The Medical Advocate (or, some helpful thoughts on role conflict)

lego figure juggling blocks“Be the daughter,” the oncologist told me as I sat with her, the chaplain, and the oncology social worker. We were sitting in the family waiting room and they were helping me navigate a difficult moment about five months into my mother’s lost-cause battle with cancer. These women felt like part of my family by now, and I was stung by the words even though I could feel the truth inside them.

At issue was my mother’s sudden bout of paranoia, during which she had accused me of conspiring with her doctors to keep her in the hospital. My initial reaction had been to try to argue logic with her, which had only made the situation worse. I’d left the room to collect myself, and that’s when her care team found me in the family waiting room.

“Be the daughter?” I thought to myself? “I am the daughter. What have I been doing here for five months if I haven’t been being the daughter? How can she say that to me!”

But she was right. So much of the time I spent by my mother’s side was spent in the role of medical advocate, and not in the role of daugther. This might seem like a strange distinction to make at first, especially given the fact that the role of medical advocate for aging parents so often falls to adult daughters, but it’s important all the same. What my mother’s doctor was telling me was that I needed to pay more attention to our mother-daughter need for affection, love, comfort, and the sharing of vulnerabilities. For at least the next few days nothing bad would happen if I let the task of collecting and organizing information about the tests, prescriptions, procedures fall to the side. Right now comfort and trust were more important than record-keeping. My mother needed a daughter, and not an advocate, right now.

We are often faced with exacly these kinds of competing demands on our time and attention. Sociologists call this role conflict. We occupy many positions in our lives, and the expectations that go with each are frequently inconsistent. In the memoir I’m writing about my mother’s last years, this “be the daughter” story is told in a chapter I’ve called “Buffy, The Medical Advocate“, in honor of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, whose myriad role conflicts were legendary: high school student, daughter, friend, saver of the world, vampire slayer, vampire’s girlfriend… the list goes on.

On a less fantastic level, as I read the assignments my students just submitted, detailing their time use over the course of a week, I’ve been struck – as I am every time I give this assignment – by how much role conflict they experience. Bosses expect them to be available for shifting schedules even though their professors expect them in class. Parents expect them to take care of younger siblings when something comes up at work. Their own children get sick and have to stay home from school on the morning we have an exam. When we talked about their findings in class last week one of my students said “I was surprised to learn how much of my time is spent doing things for other people. No wonder I have such a hard time getting my schoolwork done.”

In my case, the solution to the conflict was to temporarily put down one role so I could focus on the other. This was possible because I had the support of others who could help me negotiate role expectations (my own, mostly!) and shift gears. Sometimes that’s not possible. For many of my students, putting down work or family responsibilities to focus on school is not an option. For them, the solution needs to be creating a more realistic expectation about how many classes they can reasonably take without putting their academic standing in jeopardy. It means accepting the hard reality that if they want to do well they will have to move more slowly.

Solving the role conflicts that stress us out isn’t always easy, but seeing the roles for what they are, sets of expectations, is a helpful start. Negotiating role expectations can create a lot of freedom, but only if you know what you have to negotiate with. Some expectations can be changed or or set aside for a time. When we discover that they can’t, we see at least that the barrier we are facing is not a failing on our part, but a structural reality of our lives. We then need to look at the other roles we play to see if there is any adjustment possible. Figuring out when to delegate a role responsibility, when to ditch a role altogether, when to modify expectations associated with a role is tricky stuff, but it is essential to achieving happiness. There is little more frustrating than an unrealistic expectation. Our lives require triage-style decisions, and when we are doing that triage it’s important that we see all the pieces as clearly as we can.

What role conflicts do you face? Do you need to transition out of a role that no longer serves your needs? Do you need help transforming a role that you’d like to save but need to change? Is negotiating role expectations difficult for you? Drop me a note if I can give you a hand!


Image of the Lego juggler is by kosmolaut on flickr, used courtesy of a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

How Will You Know When You Have Enough?

Image of a tree growing out of coins held in a pair of hands

Image of a tree growing out of coins held in a pair of hands

Enough might just be the most radical word in the English language. It’s certainly one of those slippery words that many of us have a hard time really getting a handle on. Even it’s meanings can be confusing. “I have had enough!” is a very different statement than “I have enough.” The first signals frustration and the second signals contentment. The difference? A single change of verb tense. Unless you’re speaking, and then tone of voice no doubt conveys a great deal.

A few weeks ago I gave my students an assignment. I told them they needed to record how they spent their time for a full week. Everything from sleeping to sitting in class to commuting to work to hanging out with their friends. Then I asked them to analyze their data and answer some questions about how much control they have over their time, how well the way they spent their time serves their needs, and how often their time use actually gets in the way of their achieving their goals. I ask them to think about what they’d change if they had a magic wand (in the past many have said they’d work fewer hours), and I ask them to think about what they’re most likely to be able to change if they needed to make more time for something that’s getting short shrift (often studying). My goal in the assignment is to help them examine the amount of individual power they have to attain their goals, and to see where social structure, cultural expectations, or economic realities get in their way. Once they’ve done that, we can talk about social changes that would be useful to them.

I’m about to give myself the same kind of assignment, only I’m going to do it with money, not with time. Here’s why: As I think about making big changes in my work life, and as my partner Will moves into retirement, I need to know how much is really “enough” when it comes to monthly cash flow, savings, and long-term security. I’m generally pretty good about keeping my check register in order, but I know there are lots of small cash expenditures I never remember to record. For one month, starting tomorrow, October 1, I’m going to make an effort to record every penny I earn or spend. I’m not going to make any effort to restrict spending, but just to record what comes in and what goes out. At the end of the month, I’ll analyze the data to see where my money goes, and after that, I’ll ask myself the same kinds of questions I asked my students: How much of this spending is within my control? How much of it is directed toward meeting immediate needs? How much is directed toward saving for longer-term needs? How much of my spending is on things that matter a great deal to me, even if they are not “basic needs”? How much room is there for me to shift spending from one category to another if I realize that I need to do that? And finally, how much could I cut back if I wanted to earn less and have more time for other work or other activities?

Many of us work long hours, or at jobs we don’t love, because we can’t meet our basic needs any other way. But some of us work long hours at stressful jobs because we don’t have a sense of whether or not we have enough. It’s that latter question I need to answer for myself. How much do I need to earn in order to be happy? Happiness is not all about money, though we need money to fund large portions of our happiness. Figuring out the balance between earning and enjoying, between accumulation and leisure, between long-term and short-term needs, these are the challenges.

How many of us would give fewer of our hours to our employers if we had a sense that we really could be happy with less than what we’re earning? How will we know whether or not we can unless we collect the information? It’s that knowledge that makes “enough” a radical word. It has the potential to inspire two kind of radical actions. One is the stepping back from unexamined work expectations. The other is a clarity that the system is rigged, unfair, and needs to be changed in dramatic ways. Either way, our current economic structure and cultural expectations are limiting many of us. Examining the question of “enough” is one of the first things we can do to fuel change.

If you’ve never done anything like this before, I encourage you to join me for the month of October. Let’s collect some data and then really analyze it. Don’t look away. Numbers are scary, especially when they’re connected to dollars, but we can’t make meaningful change or meaningful plans without real information.

I’ll post updates throughout the month and will share my results early in November. Join me!


Image of plant growing out of coins held in hands is by user 401(k) 2012 on Flickr and used courtesy of a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license.

Rocking The Boat

photo by Will Van Dorp

photo of Tug Hackensack by Will Van Dorp

My partner Will has a thing for boats. In fact, we lived on a boat for the first three years of our relationship. It was beautiful, and challenging. One of the beauties of boat life was that we were tied to a dock but we floated up and down with the tide. I’ve never been so tuned in to natural rhythms. No matter how much stress there was in my day or how chaotic the world seemed (and given that we’re talking 2000-2003 there was a lot of chaos), there was a regularity and a rhythm to my immediate environment. No matter what else was happening, the tide came in and the tide went out two times a day. Just like the tide marked daily rhythms, phases of the moon marked monthly rhythms, and bird migrations marked annual ones. All of this was visible, tangible, and inextricably woven through our everyday lives. There were beautiful sunrises.

I’m thinking about this because I’m planning for a transition in my own life, and it’s one that will require me to give up quite a bit of something that I’ve been holding on to tightly for the last 15 years: stability. I had very little stability growing up, and so creating stability as an adult is something I’ve prized more than just about anything else. I am proud of the fact that I pushed through college and graduate school and had my Ph.D and a tenure-track job before I was 30. I had tenure by 34, and along with that came a lot of security: a solid career path, good pay, excellent health insurance, a retirement savings plan, and work that combines intellectualism and social justice in a way that I think truly improves my students lives and their communities.

But it’s time to rock the boat, and thinking about boats is really helping me see that giving up some stability is not necessarily as scary as I thought. Boats are designed to move through water, unattached to the earth. They pitch and roll with the waves, an experience that can be terrifying and yet relatively safe at the same time. A sailboat flies through the water heeled way over on its side and then returns to its upright position when its sails are pulled in. A boat can’t balance itself on stable ground, but put it in the dynamic environment of the water and it’s resilience is immediately apparent. I remember being surprised during Hurricane Sandy when Will blogged about the large boats and ships that were staying safe by staying away from the piers and docks. Even during a storm, the resilience of a boat is greatest when it is not tied to a stationary point.

That’s what I’m holding dear right now: resilience. I’m going to focus on the strength of rolling with the waves instead of the stability of maintaining position. When I took my current teaching job sixteen years ago and we lived on our boat, I used to joke with colleagues that if the job didn’t work out I could just “cut the lines and go.” I never did, and that’s not what I’m contemplating now. But I’m definitely planning for a life with more fluidity, one that requires putting more emphasis on resilience than on stability. I will find new rhythms, and perhaps some beautiful sunrises!

Why Now?

live-511566_1280Four years ago at Christmas, my sister treated us both to an aerial yoga class. At the end of the class we were instructed to wrap ourselves in our hammocks for a suspended relaxation exercise. It was blissful. The instructor asked us to think about one thing that we needed to add or subtract from our lives in order to feel happier in the coming year. As I floated in my hammock, and tried to clear my mind, two things happened. First, tears came to my eyes. Thinking intentionally about happiness was a very moving experience. Second, the phrase “one-on-one” floated into my mind. The phrase was accompanied by a deeply felt need to do more direct helping work.

At the time I was teaching full time, working as the treasurer of my faculty union, volunteering as a strategist for Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance, and of course navigating my own personal life. Each of those activities brought satisfaction, but each also came with its own peculiar frustrations. Over the course of the winter break I thought a lot about that moment in the hammock and as I did, it became less and less surprising. I love working with students in the classroom, but what I love even more about teaching is the one-on-one work I do when a student needs advising or individual help with course material. I loved my work with the union, but the things I loved most about it were our small executive committee meetings, where we’d solve problems and plan for the future, and the times I’d be able to sit with an individual faculty member to address a troubling workplace issue. And I love just about everything about working with Woodhull, but what I love most are my one-on-one strategy calls and meetings with Ricci Levy, our Executive Director.

About six months after that Christmas, my mother got sick and I took time off from work to help take care of her. I learned a lot during the last months of my mother’s life. There were lessons in the importance of love, the intensity of caregiving, in the complexity of health care and in the vagaries of mortality. And there was a radical break from my everyday life during which, out of necessity, I stepped away from the classroom, the union, and even to some degree from Woodhull.

After my mother’s death at the end of 2012, I began to slowly reassemble my routines. I went back to the classroom, but not back to the union. I picked my Woodhull work back up with a renewed passion. I noticed where I was feeling the most fulfillment and where I was experiencing the greatest frustrations. I started to wonder about a life beyond full-time teaching. Then I was awarded a year-long sabbatical to write a book about my mother, and in the process of writing that book I thought more and more about how to shape my life so that I can have more of what I wanted all those years ago in that hammock.

And slowly, that is what I’m building towards. This launch is not a sudden change, but rather an outgrowth of deliberate and strategic thinking. My intent is to build slowly, thoughtfully, and carefully while opening myself to the risks of starting something new. If it surprises me and grows like a proverbial weed, I’m confident that I can keep up with it. It will mean that I focus less on stability and more on resilience, something I’ll write more about in my next post. And it means that while the future looks less certain than it once did, it also looks brighter and happier.

Close your eyes. Quiet your mind. Let yourself think of one thing you need to add or subtract from your life in order to feel happier. What do you see? What will it take? Is there anything I can do to help?